(AP) BRASILIA, Brazil; Engaging, not isolating Iran is the way to push for peace and stability in the Middle East, said Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva as he headed into private talks Monday with his increasingly alienated Iranian counterpart.
For Silva, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first-ever visit to Brazil provides an opportunity to boost the international political clout of South America's largest nation.
For Ahmadinejad, it could provide some sorely needed political legitimacy for his nation as it engages in large-scale war games aimed at protecting its nuclear facilities from attack and refuses to back down from developing a nuclear program.
Oil prices rose above $78 a barrel Monday amid deepening tensions in the Middle East following the start of the war games and boasts by an air force commander that Iran could deter any military strike by Israel.
Silva, who has defended Iran's nuclear program, didn't mention the war games ahead of his meeting with Ahmadinejad but gave him a big bear hug and called for diplomacy to push for peace in the Middle East and ease tensions between Iran, the United States and other nations.
"There's no point in leaving Iran isolated," the Brazilian leader said on his weekly radio program hours before the two met. "It's important that someone sits down with Iran, talks with Iran and tries to establish some balance so that the Middle East can return to a certain sense of normalcy."
Ahmadinejad is the third high-ranking Middle Eastern leader to visit Brazil in recent weeks. Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestine Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas were here shortly before him. During his radio show, Silva proposed a soccer game next March pitting Brazil's national team against a team comprising Israelis and Palestinians.
Silva, a deft negotiator whose skills were honed as a union leader, says a new tact is needed with the Iranians. It may not be as embracing as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, a close ally whom Ahmadinejad will also visit during his South America tour.
But it also shouldn't be as punitive as the U.S. or European approach, Silva said.
"I told President (Barack) Obama, I told President (Nicolas) Sarkozy, I told (German) Chancellor Angela Merkel that we will not get good things out of Iran if we corner them. You need to create space to talk," Silva said last month.
The Iranian leader will next visit allies in Bolivia and Venezuela to shore up more South American support
"With Brazil he gets more bang for his buck in the sense you're getting legitimacy from a more mainstream player," said Daniel Brumberg, an Iran expert at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace. "One would hope Brazil's diplomacy would be skillful enough to get certain types of messages across to the Iranians and not just give Ahmadinejad the red-carpet treatment."
Ahmadinejad said Sunday that the two countries may discuss cooperation in the nuclear field, where Iran is under intense international pressure to stop uranium enrichment for fear that it is developing atomic weapons.
"We can build partnerships to build nuclear plants," he said in an interview with Brazil's Globo TV News. "Our two countries need nuclear power to generate electricity. Both Brazil and Iran are entitled to benefit from nuclear technology."
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Ahmadinejad said in Sunday's interview that critics are politically motivated and believe only wealthy countries should have the technology.
Several dozen Ahmadinejad supporters and opponents held demonstrations in Brasilia on Monday, a day after about 500 people gathered at Rio de Janeiro's Ipanema Beach to protest his visit.
Groups representing gays, Afro-Brazilian artists, Christians, Jews, and Holocaust survivors carried protest banners and a giant cage Sunday containing white balloons, which they said was a symbol of Iran's "repressed values."
The Iranian leader has called for the destruction of Israel and repeated in Sunday's interview that homosexuality goes against human nature.
Israel is voicing concern about Iran's push in Latin America. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Brazil and Argentina in July and Israeli President Shimon Peres visited the same nations last week the first such high-level visits in decades.
Brazil has the world's seventh-largest uranium reserves and enriches it for its own nuclear energy program. The nation has flatly said it would not sell enriched uranium to Iran, or any other nation.
In addition to encouraging Brazil to press Iran on its uranium enrichment, the U.S. State Department said it hopes Brazil raises the case of three American hikers being held in Iran after they crossed an unmarked border while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan in July. Ahmadinejad didn't mention the hikers during his interview with Globo TV.
Associated Press Writer Marco Sibaja contributed to this report.