Friday, November 27, 2009

Obama, Lula, and Iran: Understanding the Complexities of International Relations

One of the refrains I've heard from some in Latin American and in the U.S. is that Obama is no different than Bush in terms of policies. These claims are clearly laughable at face value, and every value beyond that. Still, some still make those claims, based mostly on a "reasoning" that (and I paraphrase) "Obama hasn't stopped the wars, and Obama's a leader of an empire, just like Bush was." Again, stupid and simplistic arguments, but they exist.

In the face of such baseless and unrealistic accusations, this week offered yet another reminder of just how different the two administrations are:

President Obama sent a letter on Sunday to President Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva of Brazil reiterating the American position on Iran’s nuclear program, a day before Iran’s president made his first state visit to Brazil, an aide to Mr. da Silva said Tuesday.

Mr. Obama did not explicitly criticize Mr. da Silva for hosting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, implying instead that he hoped Mr. da Silva would use the occasion to express support for the international effort to forge a compromise on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, according to two American officials.

In the three-page letter, Mr. Obama restated his support for a proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency that would try to steer Iran into developing nuclear energy for peaceful, civilian purposes. The proposed accord calls for Iran to export most of its enriched uranium for additional processing into a form that could be used in a medical reactor in Tehran.

The differences between Bush and Obama should be fairly clear here. In Bush's black-and-white, with-me-or-against-me vision of foreign relations, I just don't see how he would have been nearly as nuanced in his letter-writing (if he even bothered to write a letter). Instead, we probably would have gotten some tired mashup of the "axis of evil" rhetoric, with no efforts to use Ahmadinejad's trip to Brazil to try to emphasize the policy we felt should be taken (which, to be fair, called for war against Iran during the Bush years - not exactly a policy to push at any time).

Under Obama, we get a cordial letter that clearly shows a far more nuanced understsanding of how international politics work not just between the U.S. and other countries, but between other countries and other countries. It's a far more multi-lateral position that understands and acknowledges the importance of other countries in the global arena without ever "conceding" the U.S.'s own role. Indeed, I think it's safe to say that Obama's move, while it may not be effective, was rather brilliant: he found a way to try to get the U.S.'s message to Ahmadinejad without ever having to talk directly to the Iranian president. Whether Obama's letter came up in conversation between Lula and Ahmadinejad (and what the nature or tone of that conversation was) may never be known, but moves like this should obliterate any declaration that Obama and Bush are "the same thing."

And as for Ahmadinejad's trip to Brazil, while it has sparked controversy, it hasn't been on the level of Chavez's alliance to Iran. Earlier this month, Lula met independently with Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas and with Israel's president, Shimon Peres, in an effort to try to increase negotiations for peace in the middle east. Lula has made little secret of his goal to use Brazil's newfound diplomatic presence in the global community to try to work towards peace in the region, and has even gone so far as to recommend the Brazilian national soccer team play a friendly game against an Israeli-Palestinian team. From Lula's point of view, Ahmadinejad's visit is a part of that broader effort. While the U.S. media has grossly misrepresented the Iranian president's trip to Brazil, declaring the trip, as Time magazine did, to be in "defiance" of the U.S., Time's own report indicated otherwise, and revealed Lula's motivation for hosting Ahmadinejad:
Lula enjoys considerable respect internationally, and the incorrigible talker believes problems can be resolved through dialogue. Before Ahmadinejad arrived, Lula pointedly declared, "It is important that someone sits down with Iran, talks with Iran and tries to establish a balance so we can get back to a kind of normality in the Middle East."
Exactly. Treating Iran's trip to Brazil as some isolated incident totally misses the point. Lula isn't meeting with Iran to thumb his nose at the U.S., or to show his support for "terrorism," or any such matter. The Iranian visit is part of a month-long effort to accelerate peace efforts in the Middle East, and Lula is well aware that Iran would be central to any such efforts. And it's not like it was some sycophantic, "best friends forever!" trip:

Of course, Lula has plenty of differences with his guest from Iran. He has made it clear he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has made a point of repudiating all acts of intolerance or terrorism, and has subtly criticized Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and of homosexuality in Iran.

Those are messages that Ahmadinejad needs to hear from friends, notes Anoush Ehteshami, a professor at the Centre for Iranian Studies at Durham University in England. Since Iran does not appear to be listening to the West, especially not the United States, on the issue, the emergence of interlocutors who could help bridge the gap between the two sides ought to be welcomed. "Hearing [these messages] from Lula will be a little bit better received than if it were coming from U.S. President or E.U. leaders," Ehteshami says.

Once again, that's exactly right. This latest trip is just another example of Lula's model of diplomacy throughout his career. Diplomacy depends on talking, on dialogue, and not on rejecting other leaders or countries simply because you disagree with them. And any effort towards peace, no matter who is leading it, is a valuable step. Sometimes, other countries may be in a better position for these kinds of talks than the U.S. is, and this is one of those instances. And anybody who insists Brazil is suddenly "palling around" with terrorists or directly contradicting the U.S. intentionally simply has no understanding of how diplomacy and foreign relations do and should work.