BRASILIA, Brazil — The world must engage, not isolate Iran in the push for Middle East peace and Iranian leaders should negotiate with Western nations for a “just and balanced” solution to concerns over its nuclear program, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Monday.
Silva’s comments followed a three-hour private meeting with his increasingly alienated Iranian counterpart, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the first Iranian leader to visit Brazil since pro-U.S. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi toured the South American country in 1965.
But Ahmadinejad made no promises and defiantly said Iran would try to improve its uranium-enrichment technology if it can’t buy enriched uranium abroad.
“If the people ask us to produce ourselves, we should do it and the opportunity we tried to create for the other side will be lost,” said Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly denied allegations by the United States and its European allies that Iran is embarking on a nuclear weapons program. Iran insists the program is only for peaceful purposes.
Commenting on the fate of three American hikers detained in his country, Ahmadinejad said it is up to Iran’s judicial system to determine whether they will be released or punished, though he hopes any punishment would not be severe.
The Americans were detained by Iranian authorities after having crossed an unmarked border into Iran while hiking in northern Iraq in July. The U.S. says the three were innocent tourists on an adventure hike and accidentally crossed into Iran.
“We are not happy with them making this big mistake. They are now in the hands of our judiciary,” Ahmadinejad told reporters. “A judge will decide about their situation. We hope the sanction will not be too heavy.”
The Iranian and Brazilian presidents didn’t say whether they discussed Iranian war games that started a day earlier, driving oil prices higher.
Ahmadinejad’s remarks on uranium enrichment came less than a week after Iran indicated it would not export its enriched uranium for further processing, effectively rejecting the latest plan brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency and aimed at delaying Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon.
Under the IAEA plan, Iran would export its uranium for enrichment in Russia and France where it would be converted into fuel rods, which would be returned to Iran about a year later. The rods can power reactors but cannot be readily turned into weapons-grade material.
While Silva said on his weekly radio show that there’s good reason not to isolate Iran, he also suggested — but did not insist — that Ahmadinejad could work harder to negotiate the stalemate over the nation’s nuclear program.
“I encourage your excellence to continue engagement with interested nations in order to find a just and balanced solution to the Iranian nuclear question,” the Brazilian leader said.
For Ahmadinejad, the visit to Brazil could provide some measure of 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. And for Brazil, it helps boost the nation’s growing global political clout.
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 again defended Iran’s right for a peaceful nuclear program, gave Ahmadinejad 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 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 didn’t utter the word Israel during his comments, but said that Iran wants a Middle East with “prosperity, progress and security for all nations.”
In the past, the Iranian leader has called for the destruction of Israel, which is voicing its own concern about Iran’s push in Latin America. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Brazil and Argentina in July and last week, respectively — the first such high-level visits in decades.
The Silva-Ahmadinejad meeting was condemned by U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York state Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. He ridiculed a pledge by Ahmadinejad to support Brazil for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security council and said Silva made a “serious error” by meeting with the Iranian president.
Palestine Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas was also in Brazil last week. 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 tactic is needed with the Iranians that shouldn’t be as punitive as the U.S. or European approach.
The Iranian leader will next visit allies in Bolivia and Venezuela to shore up more South American support, but the visit with Silva was significant because he is a centre-leftist viewed by Washington as a counterweight to the strident leftist Bolivian and Venezuelan presidents.
“Those concerned about Iran’s penetration into Latin America don’t think this is an overly helpful visit,” said Ray Walser, with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think-tank . “Ahmadinejad can go back to Iran say, ’Look, Brazil says we’re normal. Our nuclear program, they green-lighted us.”’
Several dozen Ahmadinejad supporters and opponents held demonstrations Monday in Brasilia. On Sunday, about 500 people, including gay rights groups, gathered at Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema Beach to protest his visit.
The Iranian president repeated in an interview Sunday with Brazil’s Globo TV that homosexuality goes against human nature.
Brazil, which enriches uranium for its own nuclear energy program, has flatly said it would not sell enriched uranium to Iran, or any other nation.