Lula's Red Carpet Welcome for Ahmadinejad

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, affectionately nicknamed Lula, comes as close to being a global rock star as a politician can get. But like any towering celebrity, there are some troubling developments behind all the glamour.

With less than a year to go before finishing his second term in office, Lula is riding a wave of popularity that is virtually unprecedented in Latin American history (75-80% approval ratings). The Brazilian economy, with the swagger of its BRIC status, has swelled over the past decade and survived the crisis, championed by many investors to be the top emerging market for growth over the short term (5% GDP growth speculated for this year). The President himself has been beatified to almost-sainthood in several films, including the latest high-budget biopic entitled "Lula, Son of Brazil," which has many guessing that he's aiming to become Secretary General of the United Nations. All that, plus he just got them the Olympics and the World Cup.

Why then, with so much going for him and his country, should he make such controversial choices in his friends? Lula's increasingly warm embrace of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, including an official state visit to Brazil Nov. 23-26, is causing many of his fawning admirers to rub their eyes in disbelief.

For those of us who enthusiastically support Brazil and its people, culture, and economy, the logic of the relationship with Iran is perplexing. There is no overlap in values, for example. This week Iran executed five people (including women), while another 135 juvenile offenders are on death row. Second only to China in capital punishment, Iran has also issued death sentences to five people now accused of fomenting unrest during the post-elections protests - a number which is likely to grow. Brazil, on the other hand, has proudly outlawed capital punishment since 1889, the second country of Latin America to adopt such a law.

The low level of trade between the two countries fails to provide an explanation either. Iran doesn't figure among the top 20 trade partners either for purchasing Brazilian exports or sending imports, and although Ahmadinejad has excitedly said that relations with Brazil have "no limits," even oil minister Azizollah Ramezani has stated that it is too far away to be a potential market for hydrocarbons (though oil and gas technical expertise is an area of interest).

The professed area of mutual interests is in the nuclear sphere. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki describes Brazil as holding a "common position" on rights to nuclear energy, while on Brazil's behalf Lula has repeatedly voiced his opposition to sanctions.

However, the true motivations behind the Brazil-Iranian relationship have very little to do with these statements. For Brazil, the elephant in the room is Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose own jovial relations with Iran and the purchase of $6 billion in Russian arms are prompting his neighbors to take action toward containment. What better way to procure information on what Iran is doing with its new "factories" in remote parts of Venezuela than strike up a competing relationship - which could also be the logic of Brazil hijacking the Honduran situation from Chávez's control by housing ousted President Mel Zelaya in their embassy.

During a visit this month to Brasilia, I was repeatedly told that the government believes that Chávez can be most influenced by keeping him close. Hence the hasty vote today to confirm Venezuelan ascension to Mercosur despite their failing to meet conditions set forth in the Treaty of Asunción. Many would call Brazil's decision to incorporate Chávez into Mercosur as naïve, but at the time of this writing President Lula was already boarding a plane for a coincidental visit to Caracas to celebrate Venezuela's entry at a presidential dinner.

Though there are other explanations for Lula to pursue his Iran policy (his South-South agenda, generalized anti-American goals, or bolstering Brazil's diplomatic clout in the UN), the balancing strategy with Venezuela is the most convincing. He feels that he has to create these alliances as measures of security to catch up with Chávez, which demonstrates once again that the Venezuela's activities cannot just be dismissed as harmless mischief-making by Washington. Testifying before Congress this week, Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, underscored this threat and commented that Brazil is "playing with fire" in bringing Iran into the region.

Venezuela is not only having an impact on foreign policies of neighboring states (Ecuador's Rafael Correa is in Moscow today), but also in the arms race Chávez has kicked off. Lula recently commented, "Everyone knows Brazil is a peaceful nation, but we need to be able to show our teeth if anyone wants to mess with us."

As for Iran's interest in Latin America, their thinking goes that the further they are able to penetrate into Washington's backyard, the safer they become. By increasing the costs of intervention, the Latin American strategy provides a staging ground for a real or imagined threat to the United States, which aims to have a dissuasive impact on the push for sanctions and diplomatic pressure. To boot, after a questioned election, it is always good to receive the congratulations of the global leader of the responsible left.

At the moment it is hard to say whether Lula, despite his celebrity and admirable achievements, is in over his head with Iran. Brazil is an impressive growing power, and one that has changed dramatically in the recent past, so it is understandable that its assertion of international leadership is fraught with challenges and inconsistencies. Soon the country's influence will be too big to simply shrug off issues of human rights and democracy without costs to its reputation.

This may already be happening. The most callous and frightening thing Lula has said with regard to Iran came shortly after the June elections, when demonstrations erupted and the police truncheons came down violently on the heads of protesting students. Quoted in the Brazilian media, Lula described these events as nothing more than the tears of poor "losers." That is not a hopeful message for those brave young men and women who now face show trials and execution for having attempted to change their country. Coinciding with the sports analogy, Fabio Barretto, the director of the latest glowing Lula biopic, was recently quoted saying, "In Brazil, there are no losers ... only people who keep trying until they succeed."

It would be nice if Lula's own story could mean something more outside of Brazil.