Brazil's Lula Befriends Iran's Ahmadinejad

As any world leader knows, breaking bread with unsavory regimes is an occupational hazard. But palling around with pariahs is another matter. So when Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva slapped Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the back at the U.N. General Assembly, stoutly defended Iran's nuclear program, and invited Ahmadinejad to visit Brazil, the world took note. What is Lula's game?

In part, it's about his ambition to position Brazil as a "first-class nation." Lula has visited 45 countries in the last three years alone and opened 35 embassies since 2003, most of them in Africa and the Caribbean. This all fits his "South to South" strategy, a diplomatic blitzkrieg designed to gather political capital across the developing world. As a result, Brazil is well regarded in places many other nations ignore, and its trade relations are well balanced, spread in roughly equal measure between Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, Europe, and the U.S. This helped Brazil keep its footing during the global economic crash to become one of the first to shake off recession. It also turned its president into a global star.

But Lula's diplomacy has created some compromising alliances. While Brazil prides itself on being one of the world's most vibrant democracies, its foreign policy has remained remarkably junior league. Recently, Brazil abstained on U.N. resolutions condemning human-rights abuses in Congo, Sri Lanka, and North Korea. It also balked on Sudan, first passing on a vote to give rights inspectors a wider brief, only to reverse course in June after prominent civic groups lashed out. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez has no better friend than Lula, even as the former has muzzled the media, bullied rivals, and smothered trade unions. "Each country establishes the democratic regime that suits its people," Lula recently told newsweek. "It's a sovereign decision of every nation."

But the bonhomie between Lula and Ahmadinejad has been glaring. During the bloody aftermath of Iran's elections, Lula called the street protesters "losers" and compared the government crackdown to a row between fans of rival football clubs. And he's emphatically defended Tehran's right to enrich uranium on grounds that he heard "personally" that Iran didn't want to build a bomb. "Brazil is undermining the mandate of the [U.N.] Human Rights Council," says Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch.

Others see Lula's aggressive foreign-policy turn as the hubris of a rising power. "It's partly the idea that Brazil can do whatever it wants in international policy, including standing up to the world's powerful nations," says former foreign minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia. Sticking a thumb in the eye of the mighty will surely draw attention--but hardly the sort a first-class nation would want.