After Lula: Brazil’s New President signals foreign policy shift

With a more austere approach, Dilma Rousseff has already criticized the same Iranian government that her predecessor was eager to reach out to.

img_assist|nid=380|title=Dilma Rousseff|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=640|height=427


Anointed by her wildly popular predecessor, Dilma Rousseff's victory in November as Brazil's first female president promised near perfect continuity from the policies of the past eight years. And on the domestic front, the 63-year-old economist is showing all the signs of continuing in the footsteps of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's social and economic development programs, aiming to eradicate extreme poverty by 2015.

The new president may be set to mark a subtle, but potentially important, shift away from Lula on foreign policy. Not only is Rousseff expected to be generally more low-profile and pragmatic, she appears to be shifting Brazil's stance on the ongoing US-Iranian diplomatic standoff.

Rousseff was active in resistance groups fighting against Brazil's military dictatorship in the 1960s, and between 1970 and 1973 she was imprisoned and tortured. As a result of her experiences, she looks set to be less tolerant of governments accused of human rights abuses than Lula, who was on friendly terms with such autocratic leaders as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In an interview with the Washington Post in December, Rousseff distanced herself from Brazil's abstention in a recent United Nations resolution condemning Iran's human rights abuses, including the stoning of people convicted of crimes. "I am not (yet) the president of Brazil, but I would feel uncomfortable as a woman president-elect not to say anything against the stoning. My position will not change when I take office. I do not agree with the way Brazil voted. It's not my position."

Since her election, Rousseff has already publicly criticized Iran for its "medieval" treatment of women. The Iranian government has voiced its displeasure at her repeated references to Iran's human rights situation, in a first sign of tension between the two countries following years of friendly relations during Lula's tenure.

In another sign of a possible policy shift, Rousseff has appointed Antonio Patriota, ambassador to the United States during the Lula administration and married to an American woman, as Brazil's foreign minister. Patriota has a close relationship with Celso Amorim, foreign minister under Lula, so many of his actions will be consistent with the previous government's. But Patriota's appointment may be an indication that Rousseff hopes to reinforce a relationship between Brazil and the U.S. that has cooled in recent years, in part due to Lula's willingness to negotiate with Iran over a nuclear energy deal in 2010.

Still to be determined is the influence that Lula may or may not try to exert over foreign policy decisions, as he is likely to remain involved in international issues, according to Brazilian economic journal Valor. During Lula's tenure, his foreign policy was focused on asserting Brazil's role as a regional leader on the international stage, and was marked as much by his charismatic presence as his administration's policies.

Lula was also known for public comments that occasionally crossed the standard lines of diplomacy. Many of his ‘one-liners' were lost in translation before ever reaching the international community. But a few, including 2009's assertion that blond, blue-eyed people were responsible for the financial crisis, did clear the language barrier to receive worldwide coverage. As one Brazilian reporter wrote earlier this year, "Lula's foreign policy actions leave no doubt as to his disposition to handle delicate global problems with a lightness of vocabulary capable of giving even the most trained diplomat heart palpitations."

Still despite the differences in style and substance, Rousseff's government has largely similar foreign policy goals as Lula's, including obtaining a permanent seat on the U.N."s security council, as well as serving as mediator on key international issues such as the Middle East peace process. Rousseff's lack of experience or the flair of her predecessor may keep her out of the limelight in the early months. But Brazil is simply too big a player for her to stay quiet for long.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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