Brazil, the saying used to go, is the land of the future — and always will be. But when Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, visits the White House next week, she will come as the leader of a country whose future has arrived.
With huge new offshore oil discoveries and foreign investment flooding in, Brazil’s economy, growing twice as fast as America’s, has surpassed Britain’s to become the world’s seventh largest. As a member of the Group of 20 and host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Brazil is an emerging global leader.
But there is one area where it has an opportunity to lead and has failed to: preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Brazil should take the bold step of voluntarily ending its uranium enrichment program and calling on other nations, including Iran, to follow its example.
Brazil started off as a force for nonproliferation. It voluntarily placed its nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision in 1991 and later joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But in 2004, Brazil, home to the world’s fifth largest uranium reserves, also proclaimed that all states had an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium for “peaceful purposes.” It then constructed an enrichment facility and fought with the I.A.E.A. for more than a year before giving inspectors access.
Brazil says its enrichment program is for peaceful purposes, and there is no reason to doubt it. The treaty permits signers to produce enriched uranium to fuel commercial and research reactors, store the radioactive fuel and reprocess spent fuel as long as all nuclear facilities are subject to I.A.E.A. oversight.
But the its greatest flaw is that the same facilities that enrich uranium for peaceful purposes can also be used to enrich it further for nuclear weapons. And reprocessed fuel from peaceful reactors yields plutonium that can be used in nuclear bombs. By exploiting this “enrichment loophole,” North Korea developed a covert program to reprocess spent fuel, withdrew from the treaty and, soon after, developed nuclear weapons. Iran is trying to do the same.
Of the countries now operating or constructing nuclear energy or research reactors under the treaty, more than 40 also have the capabilities to build nuclear weapons by exploiting this loophole. If Iran develops this capability, it could, as President Obama has warned, exert inexorable pressure on Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to quickly pursue nuclear weapons themselves.
Brazil has unique standing among developing nations to address this proliferation danger because of its historic, nationalist defense of enrichment. If it were to renounce its right to enrich uranium in the name of international peace, close its enrichment facility, embrace a longstanding United Nations proposal to accept enriched uranium from the I.A.E.A., let the agency reprocess its spent fuel — essentially the deal offered to Iran — and call on other states that have signed the treaty to do the same, it would transform the nuclear debate.
A new Brazilian stance would take away Iran’s principal argument that the advanced nuclear weapons states are pursuing a form of “nuclear apartheid” by pulling up the enrichment “drawbridge” before developing nations have a chance to cross. It would also give Iran a face-saving way to join other developing nations in a new multilateral effort to suspend enrichment rather than appearing to yield to Western sanctions and threats. Finally, if Brazil and other developing nations were to give up enrichment, it would make possible a new concerted international effort to close the enrichment loophole permanently by amending the nonproliferation treaty.
There are obstacles. Powerful commercial and military constituencies have a vested interest in continuing Brazil’s enrichment program, and Brazilian nationalists would have to be mollified. Thus, it is vital that Brazil be perceived as acting on its own rather than yielding to pressure from Washington.
Still, the United States could offer incentives behind closed doors. Mr. Obama is weighing proposals to reduce America’s fully operational nuclear arsenal by 30 percent or even more. Brazil currently leads a group of eight non-nuclear states that are pressing nuclear powers, including the United States, to deliver on their treaty commitments and move toward eventual nuclear disarmament — and if there were a breakthrough on this front Brazil would be given substantial credit. Congress and the White House could also revisit the punitive tariff on Brazil’s sugar-cane-based ethanol, which forces Americans to rely on more expensive corn-based ethanol and drives up the global price of food.
Renouncing its enrichment rights would overnight catapult Brazil into a position of global leadership on the most urgent security challenge facing the international community. And Brazil’s leadership would inevitably shape the context for any future discussions about Brazil’s permanent membership on an expanded United Nations Security Council — one of its longstanding ambitions.
At a moment when the world is facing the prospect of war with Iran, Ms. Rousseff has the opportunity to make a courageous overture to help defuse the crisis; she should seize it.
Bernard Aronson, a private equity manager, was assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989 to 1993.