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A Reflection on the May 2010 Brazil-Turkey Nuclear Initiative Toward Iran

Monica Herz, Director, International Relations Institute, Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro; Craig Kelly, Vice President, The Cohen Group; Mustafa Kibaroglu, Associate Professor of International Affairs, Bilkent University, Ankara; Nizar Messari, Associate Professor of International Relations, Al Akhawayn University, Ifrane, Morocco; Trita Parsi, President, National Iranian-American Council and former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar

Date & Time

Feb. 22, 2011
8:00am – 12:00pm ET


On February 22, 2011, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Haleh Esfandiari opened the seminar "A Reflection on the May 2010 Brazil-Turkey Nuclear Initiative Toward Iran" by calling to mind the photo of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, holding hands to mark the signing of the May 2010 Nuclear Deal, also known as the Tehran Agreement. She ended her introduction by rhetorically asking those present whether Iran was truly interested in an agreement or if it had alternate, more sinister intentions.

Paulo Sotero, Director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, then introduced a Brazil-centric picture of the May 2010 initiative, saying that the event produced open criticism from both current and former Brazilian diplomats. President Dilma Rousseff, who was inaugurated in Brasilia this past January to succeed President Lula, however, has sought to distance herself from certain aspects of Lula's relationship with Iran. Mr. Sotero noted that before her inauguration, Rousseff, herself a former victim of torture, criticized the Brazilian abstention in a UNHCR vote on stoning following an Iranian stoning sentence, saying, "There is no nuance. That was a mistake." In light of continued Iranian incompliance in international agreements, Mr. Sotero invited the event's discussants to give their perspectives on the objectives, motives, and accomplishments of the May 2010 Nuclear Deal.

Professor Monica Herz, Director of the International Relations Institute at the Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro, was the first panelist to speak. She structured her talk into two main arguments: first, the event can be understood in terms of a changing distribution of power in the international system. Recent debate has focused on the lack of coordination and dysfunctions that emerging powers are creating in the global governance system. Professor Herz posited, however, that though this approach allows us to understand disparate interpretations of the Tehran Agreement, it disregards what should be our focus: how and if the world order will adapt to new emerging powers. Herz believes that the rising influence countries like Brazil exert in the economic sphere is not matched by a rising influence in "high politics in general and security in particular." Moreover, tensions between dominant and emerging powers stem from the "stability of international institutions" and their accompanying "hard power asymmetries."

"One of the obvious victims of these tensions is the non-proliferation regime," Professor Herz said, introducing her second argument. In addition, the inherent faults in the regime's composition serve only to exacerbate this crisis. Professor Herz emphasized that in particular, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was negotiated in a global context vastly different, and incompatible, with today's realities. After reviewing the history of the regime, she asserted that little progress has been made in updating the regime.

In spite of this, Herz said, Brazil increasingly sees the internationalization of power and authority as something to examine and discuss. For the last fifteen years Brazilian foreign policy has centered on Brazil's changing role in international politics, with a particular focus on "seeking a realistic means to ensure wider participation in global forums."

One of the aspects of international relations Brazil has taken issue with is the NPT. Professor Herz explained that the NPT established two approaches to state negotiations: one in terms of the logic of deterrence, and the second in terms of nonproliferation. She underlined that the discriminatory nature of the non-proliferation regime and the need to move further towards disarmament has been a "hot topic" for Brazilian society. "Complete denuclearization is a central concept to Brazil's position," she said. Therefore, "any attempt to link nonproliferation to denial of access to [nuclear] technology is totally unacceptable" to the Brazilian government. Additionally, the "argument that qualifies weapons users as rational or irrational, ethical or unethical" is equally rejected. Brazil stresses that without progress in disarmament, there is no reason for other states to reciprocate in adhering to nonproliferation.

Therefore, Professor Herz concluded, Brazil's involvement in the 2010 Tehran Agreement can be understood in terms of a "sense of identity" Brazil felt with Iran, "specifically regarding autonomy in the technological sphere," as well as "treatment in terms of equality of sovereignty."

Professor Mustafa Kibaroglu, Associate Professor of International Affairs, Bilkent University, Ankara, followed Professor Herz and offered Turkey's perspective on the negotiations leading up to the Tehran Agreement. He reviewed the events that led up to the Tehran Declaration, or the swap deal, of May 2010. Professor Kibaroglu lamented the rejection by the P5+1 countries of the "unique opportunity" the swap deal presented. He expressed confusion about why, when Turkey had kept Washington updated on all the negotiations, Washington had not made Turkey aware earlier of its disapproval of the deal. "It is fair to say," he said, "that the United States acted too hastily" in first rejecting the deal and later in convincing the Security Council members to pass a new round of sanctions on Iran. Sanctions are not only ineffective in impacting Iranian nuclear ambitions, given that Iranians are accustomed to circumventing them, but implementation of sanctions also engender support for the Iranian regime from anti-American states and people.

Insofar as motivations behind Turkish participation in the negotiations, Professor Kibaroglu first underscored that as a non-permanent member of the UNSC, it was Turkey's duty to involve itself in issues of international peace and security. Furthermore, Turkey's particular interest in Iran's nuclear program is threefold: first, it is partly based on the fear of Iran developing nuclear weapons, since "Turkey will be the country most negatively affected" by such a development; second, Turkey does not want the United States to justify military action against Iran by claiming that Iran rejected diplomatic efforts; third, Turkey fears Iranian justification of nuclear enrichment to weapons grade levels under the claim of not receiving enough global support. Along these lines, Professor Kibaroglu stressed that the non-proliferation regime stipulates "the importance of equal and balanced treatment" of "the three inseparable and mutually reinforcing pillars": non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Turkey believes Iran is entitled to this third pillar.

After a short coffee break, Robert Litwak, Vice President for Programs and Director of International Security Studies at the Center, introduced a second round of panelists. Former Ambassador and current Vice President of the Cohen Group, Craig Kelly was the first to speak, and he felt it was "very important to underscore" that the United States welcomes increased globalization in the Western Hemisphere. He sought to clarify that the United States did not seek "to discourage Brazil or Turkey from trying to exert influence on this issue." Rather, he said, Washington understood that the two countries were committed to and shared the same goal as the United States – to prevent a nuclear weapons program from developing in Iran – but that the two sides disagreed on the tactics that should be employed to accomplish this goal. Ambassador Kelly explained that President Obama, when he assumed power, attempted pure diplomacy with Iran, but his efforts "failed to bear fruit, and to the contrary bore a lot of frustration." Therefore, the administration decided that only through a mix of sanctions and diplomacy could they make real progress on Iran. Moreover, Ambassador Kelly said that Washington's almost universal skepticism about Iran's intent was made clear "privately and publicly" to Brazil and Turkey during the negotiations that led up to the Tehran Agreement. Despite U.S. rejection of the "swap deal," Kelly closed by expressing his belief in the resilience of the Brazil-U.S. relationship.

Dr. Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian-American Council and former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, focused on the Iranian perspective of the affair. He opened by explaining that the stalemate that ended negotiations between the United States and Iran in October of 2009 was the result of Iranian domestic "political infighting," as well as Iranian suspicion of the United States' sincerity in any agreement.

The body of Dr. Parsi's presentation addressed four myths that have arisen out of the failed Tehran Agreement. First, Dr. Parsi denied that Tehran "tricked" Brazil and Turkey into the deal with the hope of dividing the international community or embarrassing the latter countries. Each country had various interests that motivated their participation in the negotiations. Second, "although it is impossible to ascertain" whether or not Iran was sincere, Dr. Parsi mounted an argument that implied a sincerity in Iran's actions. Third, Dr. Parsi addressed the wrong assertion that the Tehran Declaration was meant to be a final solution to the question of Iran's nuclear program. Instead, the intention was to "build trust and create space for additional diplomacy." Lastly, he addressed the notion that the Tehran Declaration was rejected because of "its failure to address Iran's growing LEU stockpile." The truth is, after the stalemate of October of 2009, the democratic Obama administration began a months-long initiative to persuade China and Russia to agree to sanctions, a feat it accomplished "unbeknownst to Brazil and Turkey... only two days before Lula's trip to Iran." The United States's domestic political landscape was marked by pro-sanctions voices, anger after the sham 2009 Iranian presidential elections, and fears over what a nuclear deal would mean for upcoming November 2010 elections. These factors are the real motivating factors for the United States's rejection of the Tehran Agreement and for its push for a new round of sanctions.

Dr. Parsi concluded by returning to the potential for Brazil and Turkey to participate in future negotiations. He believes that there are few countries "so uniquely positioned" as Brazil and Turkey to effect positive change on the Iranian nuclear issue, and that if the real objective is a peaceful solution, "then a closer review of Turkey and Brazil's mediation efforts would be valuable."

Following Dr. Parsi, Professor Nizar Messari of the Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco interpreted the Brazil-Turkey mediation from three disparate viewpoints: that of Sunni Arab states, the Gulf States, and the Arab public. The Sunni Arab states found the Brazilian position "extremely puzzling" and negative because they see Iran, a majority Shia state, as an increasing security threat. As an example, Professor Messari noted that before his deposition Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was increasingly vocal about a Shia threat, and Saudi Arabia has been very alarmed by what they see as an Iranian encouragement in the current Bahrain (a majority Shia country) uprising. Given that these Sunni states depend on the United States military for their security, the Brazil-Turkey mediation "is bad because it just delays and postpones any action by the United States."

On the other hand, Professor Messari pointed out, the Gulf States saw the mediation as "extremely positive." After Turkey, he argued, the Gulf States would be the worst off in the case of a nuclear-armed Iran because they are completely vulnerable to military action against them. The mediation "gave them hope that the [Iran nuclear] program would be stopped eventually" and even suggested a peaceful resolution to the problem.
Arab public opinion was also extremely in favor of the Tehran Agreement. Although Arab leaders stress religious divisions, the Arab streets largely support the Iranian nuclear program as it symbolizes sovereignty and international independence. The Brazil-Turkey mediation let Iran "off the hook" and would have allowed it to both continue its nuclear development while retaining membership in the international community.

To finish, Professor Messari warned that a nuclear Iran would catalyze an arms race in the region. Since there are "strong doubts" that the "U.S. would extend its nuclear umbrella" to protect Iran's Arab neighbors in the case of a nuclear Iran, Arab states will take it upon themselves to develop nuclear arms in self-defense. "We can live with Israeli weapons," Messari cautioned, "but Israeli and Iranian? That is too hard to accept. We need to protect ourselves."

Drafted by Jillian Macnaughton,
Paulo Sotero, Director, Brazil Institute


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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and US institutions in all sectors. The Brazil Institute plays this role by producing independent research and programs that bridge the gap between scholarship and policy, and by serving as a crossroads for leading policymakers, scholars and private sector representatives who are committed to addressing Brazil’s challenges and opportunities.  Read more

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