By Juliana Tafur, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is on a ten-day trip to South America, aimed at promoting trade and countering the influence of Iran in the region. Brazil was his first stop, and not by coincidence. The top Israeli diplomat had a clear message for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during a meeting in Brasilia last Wednesday.
“I think that Brazil, more than other countries, can try to convince the Iranians to stop their nuclear program and, of course, convince the Palestinians to start direct talks,” Lieberman said.
Brazil is in a difficult position. The country is home to a Jewish community of more than 100,000 and is Israel’s main commercial partner in the region. But the country has close commercial and diplomatic ties with Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well. And recent developments seem to indicate that the two Middle Eastern nations are butting heads to get Brazil to join their camp.
During the one-hour encounter with the Brazilian President at Palácio do Itamaraty (Itamaraty Palace), Lieberman confirmed that Israeli President Shimon Peres will come to Brazil in November, and invited Lula to visit Israel next year. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad, who intended to visit Brazil earlier this year before election riots broke out in Iran, promises to make it his first overseas trip after he’s sworn into office.
At the G-8 Summit in Italy earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Lula to help convince Iran to focus its nuclear technology on energy, not weapons. Israel, the United States and other western nations fear Iran is developing nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian atomic energy program. For Israel, the situation is aggravated by repeated talks by Ahmadinejad that the Jewish state should be “wiped off the map.”
Speaking to reporters, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim affirmed Iran’s right to nuclear development, but “exclusively” for “non-military purposes.” He said Brazil wanted “a Middle East free of nuclear weapons,” while emphasizing that the Brazilian constitution prohibits them. “All countries should sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” added Amorim.
This was interpreted by some as a slap in the face to Israel, which is believed to have nuclear weapons, but has never officially confirmed their existence. The Jewish state has also refused to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
This talk of nuclear power comes at an interesting time for Brazil. Last Tuesday, the chairman of Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN), Odair Gonçalves, signed a memorandum of cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy with Russia.
The agreement will allow Brazil to build new research reactors and develop nuclear technology. It also opens the way for the production of radioisotopes, to be used in agriculture and the pharmaceutical industry.
Brazil, a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has the sixth-largest uranium reserves in the world. The country has operated a nuclear energy program since the 80s and has two atomic reactors with a generating capacity of 1,855 megawatts.