Iran and Brazil: Dangerous Precedents

April 7, 2004 Topic: Nuclear ProliferationSecurity Tags: Nuclear Power

Iran and Brazil: Dangerous Precedents

It is a country long known for wanting the bomb.


It is a country long known for wanting the bomb.  It's most recent elections deeply frustrated Washington and threaten a collision with the West.  It is accused of housing members of the terrorist organization Hezbollah.  Despite being a signatory to the NPT, it has willfully hidden a uranium enrichment program from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - all the while its leaders claim the right to peaceful nuclear technology and regularly deny having plans to secretly produce nuclear weapons. 

This, of course, could be a description of either Iran or Brazil, which is precisely the problem currently facing the IAEA, the Bush Administration and the rest of the international community.  The slow but steady diplomatic effort to encircle and rein in Iran's nuclear program has received an unexpected blow from an unlikely quarter in Latin America.  Brazil, as first reported in The Washington Post, has been quietly developing a sophisticated uranium enrichment facility at Resende outside Rio de Janeiro.  This facility has been visited by the IAEA, but the IAEA inspectors have been denied access to large portions of the facility.  Brazilian officials have argued that "visual" inspections of its facilities are unnecessary and that it has a right to shield its "technological breakthroughs" from global scrutiny.  They have even claimed they have spent over $1 billion developing its new enrichment technology, and do not want to see its commercially sensitive investment wasted by being revealed and circulated to its would-be competitors.


Though there is little worry - at the moment - that Brazil is actually attempting to hide a nuclear weapons program, it is increasingly clear that Brazil is planning to develop a full, robust nuclear fuel cycle that would allow it to export enriched uranium to countries in need of fuel for nuclear power plants.  Brazilian officials believe that this enriched uranium export market could be lucrative for years to come, and, given its large supply of uranium, they want to share in the profits.  Though a new seller of enriched uranium on the world market poses its own important proliferation questions, the impasse between the IAEA and Brazil, under normal circumstances, could be solved relatively peaceably. 

Unfortunately for Brazil, its timing could not be worse.  Brazil's publicized activity has significant implications for the IAEA's ongoing drama with Iran.  Under the NPT, Iran and Brazil are both members and must be treated as equals.  Thus, any decision made toward Brazil and its nuclear program applies to Iran and vice-versa  - or so Iran and many other countries will argue.  After all, why should Brazil be allowed to hide certain aspects of its nuclear program from the IAEA for "technological and commercial" reasons when Iran would not be allowed to use similar justifications?  Indeed, any deal with Brasilia that allows Brazil to keep its new uranium enrichment facility risks scuttling any chance of striking a deal with Tehran to give up hopes of its own nuclear fuel cycle.    

And to be sure, Iranians will be watching what happens in Brazil extremely closely for any sign of dissimilar treatment.  The IAEA's report on Iranian compliance is expected to be damaging for Tehran when it comes out.  Iran failed to report several nuclear facilities later discovered by the IAEA, including a P-2 centrifuge and the presence of polonium - a chemical used in the creation of nuclear weapons.  Yet, despite such damning evidence, Iran could use the Brazilian case as a new avenue through which to equivocate and obfuscate its failings and past misdeeds. 

The best hope for stopping an Iranian nuclear fuel cycle is for the Bush Administration to unite the international community and put enormous pressure on Iran to agree to a compromise that stops it from having a full, indigenous fuel cycle - the critical step towards developing nuclear weapons.  There is good reason to believe that this approach is working.  The Bush Administration and its European allies have convinced many other countries to band together and make it clear to Iran that a nuclear program is unacceptable without IAEA approval and guidelines.  In fact, Iran has just recently agreed to suspend its construction of centrifuges and to accelerate cooperation with the IAEA - positive steps to be sure. 

However, Brazil's dispute with the IAEA now risks changing that optimistic scenario. If Brazil is perceived to be treated differently than Iran, claims of racism and anti-Muslim treatment could be hurled at the Vienna-based IAEA, however unwarranted, and might water down the burgeoning international consensus to force Iranian concessions.  Some countries, such as Russia, are already reluctant members of such a consensus but have trouble explaining away the worrying facts coming out of Iran.  Thus, a real threat exists that Brazil's bureaucratic squabble with the IAEA will give such unsteady international partners an excuse to not press Iran as hard.

Though faulty, Iran's position might be perceived as just credible enough by some to blunt the budding coalition against Iran:  Iran has signed the IAEA's Additional Protocol, while Brazil has adamantly refused to sign it.  Brazil has admitted to seeking nuclear weapons in the past, and its former Science Minister declared last year that Brazil would retain the right to the know-how for nuclear weapons.  Even Brazilian President "Lula" de Silva has made comments which hint at Brazilian chafing under the NPT.  So why, the argument goes, is the IAEA giving Brazil a relatively free pass compared to Iran?

Countries such as Russia and India, who the U.S. and its European allies have had to wrangle into forming a united front against Iran's nuclear program and are not too excited about Brazil entering the uranium enrichment market as fresh competition, might be willing to entertain Iran's argument that it be treated the same as Brazil.  Or, alternatively, these countries might be willing to look the other way when Iran cites Brazil as a reason for its own lack of IAEA cooperation in the future.  Either way, the diplomatic noose around Iran's neck could loosen.

The bind the IAEA finds itself in could be very dangerous.  If it tries to stop Brazil from enriching uranium and developing a nuclear fuel cycle, Brasilia will fight back and create a giant international row, which could reverberate throughout the nonproliferation universe, seriously undermining far more than just the nonproliferation agenda against Iran.  On the other hand, if the IAEA lets the Resende uranium enrichment facility proceed - even if fully inspected and cleared - then Iran might cry foul and be less likely to work towards a compromise on its own program that does not allow for its own uranium enrichment (currently at its Natanz facility) to continue in a manner similar to Resende.

Of course, Washington cannot come out and say what the real reason for pressing Iran harder is.  To the Bush Administration, Iran, a member of the "axis of evil," is a hostile, corrupt regime that refers to the US as "the Great Satan" and supports terror.  An Iranian nuclear weapon could destabilize the Middle East and greatly hurt American interests.  Unfortunately for the United States, none of these arguments are valid reasons for treating Iran differently than Brazil under the bylaws of the NPT. 

Still, it is important to keep Brazil's impact on Iran in perspective.  Iran's fate will ultimately be decided by how it behaves, regardless of other states and precedents.  Nonetheless, the bigger the bureaucratic feud in Latin America and/or the wider disparity in IAEA treatment between Iran and Brazil, the more of a hindrance the Brazilian situation will be for the international community's efforts in Iran. 

To solve this potential dilemma, Washington and Brussels should move fast and hard - something they are hopefully already doing - to put pressure on Brazil to understand the situation and come to a quick and quiet agreement with the IAEA that preserves the case against Iran.  This is obviously much easier said than done, but, there is good reason to believe that some sort of arrangement can be worked out to allow full and unhindered inspections of Brazil's Resende facility while also maintaining the commercial investment and proprietary concerns of the Brazilian government.  Perhaps a selected few IAEA inspectors could be allowed to inspect the sensitive portions of the Resende facility.  Or perhaps the IAEA could accept Brazil's case that "non-visual" tests in and around the Resende facility would satisfy its concerns if done in an exhaustive fashion.  Whatever conclusion Brazil and the IAEA come to, it better be soon and, with any luck, will not set a precedent Iran can use to dance around its nonproliferation commitments yet again.


Cole Bucy is the assistant editor of In The National Interest.