Brazil-Iraq Nuclear Cooperation

By
Dani K. Nedal

As discussed in earlier dossiers, new evidence on the activities of Brazil’s nuclear program reveals instances of international “assistance.” Brazil had clandestinely purchased crucial materials and know-how in the nuclear black market and proliferating countries such as China. But Brazil was also on the giving end of international nuclear cooperation. Specifically, new documents and interviews confirm that cooperation with Iraq was more extensive than previously acknowledged by officials. Following the first oil shock of 1973, Brazil dispensed immense efforts to ingratiate itself with Middle Eastern oil producers, guarantee supply, negotiate discounts and expand exports to alleviate balance of payment pressures. Of these countries, Iraq was where Brazilian diplomacy was most successful: over the following decade it became a key supplier of oil – responding for up to 48% of Brazilian oil imports at a given point [Document 1 and Document 2] – and a major customer of Brazilian goods (especially cars, weapons and materiel) and services (like infrastructure construction). In 1978, when Brazil was setting up its covert nuclear program, Iraq was also looking to sidestep its commitments as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It reportedly contracted Italian companies to build facilities without international safeguards, and acquired natural uranium from Portugal, Nigeria, and as now confirmed, Brazil. According to various documents and interviews, the idea of nuclear cooperation was broached by Iraqi officials, to which Brazil reacted positively cautiously at first [Document 3]. Iraq was requesting a rather comprehensive agreement, involving training of personnel, technical assistance, transfer of technology and engineering services and supply of uranium. Brazil, while open to some form of cooperation, was worried about promising more than it could deliver and about compromising its deal with Germany by cooperating in “sensitive areas” [Document 4 and Document 5]. For similar reasons Brazil had declined similar requests by Chile, Uruguay and Libya [Document 1].

In 1979, a very broad and underspecified agreement between Brazil and Iraq was reached and exploratory technical visits were exchanged in 1980, but most activity took place over the course of the 1980s. Although we have indications that technical cooperation was only severed in July of 1990 during the Fernando Collor administration (1990-1992) [Document 1], we have no concrete evidence or detailed description of these activities in the intervening period. The one major aspects of the nuclear cooperation that is corroborated by most interviewees is the supply of processed, but not enriched, natural uranium in the form of uranium dioxide (UO2), according to one source, or uranium trioxide (UO3), according to another. The near-consensus view seems to be that Brazil was in a pinch: it had oil reserves to last two weeks and a burgeoning trade deficit. Iraq offered to supply the oil to Brazil at a discounted price in exchange for 80 tons of uranium, and they would also work to escalate purchases of automobiles made in Brazil. Moreover, according to an interviewee Brazil defaulted on its side of the deal when the Iran-Iraq war intensified, having only delivered 16 tons of uranium. By then Iraq’s nuclear program had already been set back considerably due to Israel’s bombing of the nuclear complex of Osirak in 1981.

Relations between Brazil and Iraq were not interrupted, however. Iraqi purchases of Brazilian weapons increased, and ushered in investment and technical cooperation in defense industries, especially missile development, in effect until the first Gulf War [Document 1]. Brazilian operations and interest in Iraq also persisted, weathering the Iran-Iraq war and even the eventual bilateral crises, such as the imprisonment and torture of three employees of a Brazilian company working on civil construction projects [Document 6].

Document 1: Oral History Interviews

Description: Interviews with key Brazilian officials from the 1970s through 1990s illuminate various aspects of relations with Iraq. Foreign Minister Saraiva Guerreiro (1979-1984) recalls the importance of relations with oil-producing countries but also the limits of cooperation. He argues that Brazil intentionally limited the scope of nuclear cooperation with Libya and Iraq. One diplomat who participated in the negotiations in the 1970s recalls that guaranteeing oil supply was seen as crucial and that Iraq was instrumental in this effort, especially since it was willing to engage in barter-trade. Two high-level sources confirm that Brazil supplied natural uranium to Iraq, but that since Iraq was party to the NPT and Brazil was not, it was Iraq who was sidestepping its responsibilities. Brazil suspected that Iraq could use this uranium for military applications, but turned a blind eye. Another high-level official in the Collor administration affirms that technical visits were still taking place in 1990 when the President interrupted them. A high-level military source confirms that the most intense Brazil-Iraq cooperation happened in the development of missile technology under supervision of the Brazilian Air Force.

Document 2: Internal memo on Brazilian relations with oil producers, 7 July 1976

Source: AAS mre d 1974.03.26 p.7336
Description: This internal memo describes Brazil’s relations with oil producers as of 1976. It highlights the importance of Iraq as an oil supplier and the necessity of expanding exports to reduce the deficit in bilateral trade.

Doc 3: Minister of Energy: Iraq wants a nuclear deal, and Brazil should accommodate, 17 January 1979

Source: PNB pn a 1978.07.13 pp.22-27
Description: Here we see Minister of Mines and Energy, Shigeaki Ueki, reporting to the Secretary-General of the National Security Council, General Gustavo Rego Reis, and to the Foreign Minister, Azeredo da Silveira, the requests made by Iraqi officials in 1978 and the stage of negotiations on the subject. He emphasizes the high value placed by Iraq on the matter and the increased relevance of Iraq an oil-supplier and recommends that Brazil accommodate Iraq’s demand.

Document 4: Ministers reply: Brazil should dither and duck, 30 January 1979 and 01 March 1979

Source: PNB pn a 1978.07.13 pp. 28-32
Description: In separate replies, both General Reis and Minister Silveira advocate that Brazil should not decline explicitly, but avoid making commitments on this issue. General Reis stresses Saddam Hussein’s “leftist inclinations” and ties to the socialist camp and the extensiveness of the proposed agreement. He notes that Brazil had already rejected proposals by Uruguay, Chile and Libya. Silveira merely requested additional time to study the proposal.

Document 5: Cooperation with Iraq should not endanger other commitments, 19 September 1979

Source: Informação para o Senhor Presidente da República 134
Description: In this memo to President Figueiredo, Minister Saraiva Guerreiro advises that Brazil should demonstrate receptivity to Iraq’s proposal but avoid a formal commitment, especially in “sensitive” areas that relate to the Germany-Brazil Agreement. Supply of uranium should be admitted as a possibility if mentioned by the Iraqis. The document stresses the need to have the cooperation be made public and subject to all safeguards both countries are subjected to as parties to international agreements and regimes.

Document 6: The arrest of Brazilian citizens in Iraq, 27 May 1982

Source: Informação para o Senhor Presidente da República 152
Description: This memo to President Figueiredo deals with the arrest and inadequate treatment dispensed to three employees of Mendes Jr., a Brazilian company operating in civil construction projects in Iraq, and efforts – mostly frustrated – by Brazilian diplomats to resolve the issue.

Document 7: Weakening dynamism in Brazil-Iraq economic relations, 26 August 1982

Source: Informação para o Senhor Presidente da República 274
Description: This memo to President Figueiredo highlights the 1,000% increase in Brazil-Iraq bilateral trade between 1971 and 1980, but also points to a deteriorating environment for Brazilian companies in Iraq despite their heroic decision to stay there during the war, unlike companies from other countries. Attached to the document we find a draft of a letter from President Figueiredo to his “great and good friend” Saddam Hussein, in which he asks for Hussein’s solidarity and understanding to help resolve these issues in the bilateral economic agenda.

Disclaimer: This dossier is the result of an ongoing research on the international history of Brazil’s nuclear program. The above historical narrative and selection of documents and oral history interviews might be updated as new and relevant evidence is uncovered.

Upcoming Events

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Leopoldo Nuti // Co-Director, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project; Public Policy Scholar
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant