Brazil's Opportunity to Close the Nuclear Proliferation Loophole

Nations, like individuals, as the ancient Greeks warned, are often tested by success, as much as by adversity. Consider the case of Brazil.

For the last several years Brazil has been on an international roll: Winner of the 2016 Olympic Games. Broker of a climate change compromise at Copenhagen. Site of massive offshore oil discoveries. Leader of the G-20. Magnet for foreign investment. A growing economy. "Brazil Takes Off" headlined The Economist Magazine in a recent cover story.

But, like Icarus -- who flew too close to the sun, burned his wings, and fell to earth -- Brazil has risked its international reputation in recent months due to its policies towards Iran. One week after Iran's clerical regime sentenced dozens of dissidents to extended jail sentences and some to death, for protesting its widely disputed presidential election, Brazilian President Luis Ignacio Lula de Silva welcomed Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Brasilia with a warm, public embrace and condemned sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. Soon after, rebuffing a personal plea from Secretary of State Clinton, Lula warned that tougher sanctions sought by the United States could lead to "war".

Brazil will be forced to define its position when the UN Security Council, on which Brazil serves as a rotating member, votes soon on an expanded sanctions regime. Recently, Brazil has echoed Chinese statements which open the diplomatic door a crack to a new Security Council resolution. But no one believes China will agree to a sanctions regime robust enough to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. What should Brazil do?

Rather than serve as Iran's enabler or seek the lowest common diplomatic denominator, like China, Brazil should vault itself into a position of leadership by helping close the loophole in the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which Iran, North Korea, and other rouge states have exploited to develop nuclear weapons programs.

The NPT permits signatories to produce the enriched uranium that fuels peaceful nuclear reactors, store the radioactive fuel the reactors produce, and reprocess the spent fuel so long as the facilities that do so are subject to IAEA inspection. The dilemma is that the same facilities that enrich uranium for nuclear power reactors can be used to enrich it further for nuclear weapons and reprocessed spent fuel yields plutonium that can be fashioned into nuclear bombs. Developing enrichment or reprocessing capabilities, says former IAEA Director, Mohammed ElBaradei, makes nations "latent nuclear weapons states".

Exploiting this flaw, North Korea in the 1990's developed a program to process spent nuclear fuel, withdrew from the NPT, and, soon after, tested nuclear devices. Using the same loophole, Iran played cat and mouse with the IAEA for years, obstructing inspections, operating secret parallel facilities, while enriching uranium. Now Iran appears close to nuclear breakout capability. At least 40 of the 60 nations that currently operate or are constructing nuclear power or research reactors possess the industrial and scientific infrastructure to build nuclear weapons by exploiting the same flaw in the Treaty, according to the U.N. Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.

Brazil must choose. Is it part of the solution or part of the problem? Historically, it has been both. At U.S. urging, in 1991, Brazil voluntarily placed its nuclear facilities under IAEA supervision and later joined the NPT. But, in 2004, Brazil -- which houses the fifth largest uranium reserves in the world -- affirmed the "inalienable right" of states to enrich uranium for "peaceful purposes", constructed an enrichment facility, and sparred with the IAEA for more than a year before granting access to inspectors.

Given that history, and its standing among developing nations, Brazil could fundamentally alter the debate about proliferation -- and about Iran -- by permanently renouncing its right to enrich uranium, closing its enrichment facility, and accepting a long-standing UN proposal: let the IAEA supply NPT signatories which operate verifiably peaceful nuclear programs with the low enriched uranium they need for peaceful purposes and reprocess the spent fuel that they produce. The United States, France, Britain, Germany, and Russia have made Iran a similar offer.

Were Brazil to embrace this proposal before the upcoming Security Council vote -- and call on other developing nations to do the same -- it would isolate Iran dramatically. Such a bold move might also convince the 189 Treaty signatories, meeting at the UN this month for the NPT Review Conference held every five years, to back an amendment that would close the enrichment and reprocessing loophole permanently. Lula could solidify his place in history and Brazil would emerge as a leader on the most urgent security challenge facing the international community.

Bernard Aronson served as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs from 1989-93.