Celso Amorim, who served as Brazil’s foreign minister and as defense minister under President Lula da Silva, talks about the enormous effort Brazil put into securing a nuclear deal with Iran, how it was ignored, and how current president Bolsonaro is following an extreme right agenda.


Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Greg Wilpert: It’s the Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia. Brazil’s far-right and many even say neofascist President Jair Bolsonaro continues to turn the clock back when it comes to how his government deals with both foreign and domestic policies. On the foreign policy front, Bolsonaro recently livestreamed himself while watching President Trump’s address following the assassination of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani earlier this month. After Trump’s address concluded, Bolsonaro had the following to say.

Jair Bolsonaro: [foreign language 00:00:37].

Translator: I want to say only one thing. Mr. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, while he was president, he went and defended that that regime be allowed to enrich uranium above 20%. That is for peaceful means.

Jair Bolsonaro: [foreign language 00:01:03].

Translator: I would only add one thing. We need to follow our laws. We can’t extrapolate. Really, it needs to be part of our day-to-day lives that we want peace in the world. I repeat, Lula, when he was president, he was in Iran and he defended at that time together with Mr. Ahmadinejad that that country enrich uranium above 20% for peaceful means.

Greg Wilpert: Bolsonaro was referring to how the center-left government of President Lula da Silva attempted to help mediate the creation of a nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran as early as 2009. Now, with the Trump administration tearing up the nuclear agreement in 2017, Brazil has taken a position of solid support for Trump, thus completely reversing Brazil’s foreign policy orientation.
Joining me now to discuss the far right Bolsonaro government in Brazil is Celso Amorim. He was foreign minister and defense minister in the cabinet of President Lula da Silva, and was directly involved in the talks between Brazil and Iran at the time. He’s also author of the book Acting Globally: Memoirs of Brazil’s Assertive Foreign Policy, which was published in 2017 with Rowman & Littlefield. Thanks for joining us today, Mr. Amorim.

Celso Amorim: My pleasure.

Greg Wilpert: I want to start with the historical background of how Bolsonaro is reversing practically everything that was done under Lula. This affects both international and domestic policy, but I wanted to start with the foreign policy. Recently, Lula actually spoke about the Iran deal as well in an interview that he conducted with the website Brasil Wire and Michael Brooks. We have a clip here from that interview and let me show it.

Jair Bolsonaro: [foreign language 00:02:52].

Translator: I remember when I decided to go to Iran. Hillary Clinton worked hard against the idea. She even called the Emir of Qatar asking him to convince me not to go. I arrived in Moscow and met with Medvedev, and Obama had called him asking to help convince me not to go because I would be tricked.

Jair Bolsonaro: [foreign language 00:03:10].

Translator: It was a very disagreeable situation. What was my impression? The rich countries, undoubtedly influenced by the U.S. State Department, did not accept having a protagonist in the area. In their minds, Brazil was not big enough to get involved in an issue of that scale.

Greg Wilpert: Give us some more context, Mr. Amorim, as to why did Lula try to get involved in the conflict between the U.S. and Iran back in 2009.

Celso Amorim: Well, President Lula didn’t have any special intention of getting involved in that. It was actually a request by President Obama, who [inaudible 00:04:02] in Italy, in a meeting of what we used to call G8 plus five. It was five being developing countries that participated. During that meeting, he had a side rendezvous with Obama. I was present, of course.

President Obama, he basically said three things in relation to his efforts to normalize relations with Iran. He said, “I reached out and I was not corresponded.” Second, he said the problem of the nuclear program in Iran is probably the most important security issue in the world today. The third question, he said, “I need friends who talk with people who I cannot talk to.” That was a clear message. I am just summarizing it, of course, because it was a broader conversation, half an hour or so.

Just after that, we received emissaries. I myself received [inaudible 00:05:12], who later on became chairman of the Carnegie Foundation, a very high official in the State Department. They explained to me in detail a kind of agreement that would be useful. Of course, it would be not a definite agreement, a definitive agreement that would solve all the problems. It would be, as President Obama later on reiterated in a letter to Lula, a confidence-building gesture.

In that understanding, we worked. It was a very long story that’s actually in the book, so I don’t need to repeat to you, but we got exactly, exactly what President Obama had asked. Well, maybe with some rhetoric that Iran considered important about equality of states, things like that, but the agreement, which was really a swap agreement, which had three elements, very practical and very measurable elements, was the quantity of light enriched uranium that should be taken out of Iran, the fact that it would go to another country… There was a quantitative element, a place element, and a time element. The time element was that Iran should do that immediately without waiting for receiving whatever they would receive in exchange.

We together with the Turks, by the way, at the time it was Minister Davutoglu, in concert with Erdogan, the prime minister, after more than six months of negotiations more or less, we got precisely what President Obama had asked. There was no doubt about that, because three weeks before our going to Tehran, President Lula’s visit to Iran, we received, or President Lula received and I read of course a letter by President Obama in which he reiterated point by point the same questions that I am mentioning to you. Just apart from these three very clear points, there was a fourth point of a more formal nature, that Iran should do that not just in a letter to Brazil or to Turkey, but it should be contained in a letter to the Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

That’s what was done. There was no doubt. Point by point, we did what President Obama had requested President Lula to do. I’ll just mention one short story. You didn’t ask, but I think it’s important to note. About four or five days before our departure, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called us, and she added two other questions that were not contained there. One of them included a question about 20% enrichment, and the other that she mentioned also was the question of the stock already, the enriched uranium and light enriched uranium that Iran already had and had to be disposed of.

We said, “Well, that’s fine. We agree with that. We don’t disagree. But os our president said, this is a confidence-building measure or confidence-building gesture, and these two points are not mentioned in the letter of our president, and then alongside as followed in our phone call.”

Just to reply to the question that was mentioned by President Bolsonaro. The objective of the agreement was precisely, precisely to preempt Iran from having the 20% uranium, because they alleged that they needed this 20% uranium for their research reactor, which produced isotopes for medical use or for other medical uses. That would be either the reason or the pretext, I don’t know, for them to continue enriching uranium still above the 3 to 4% level, because that was the level used for electrical electricity. The object of our agreement was precisely to take away from Iran whatever pretext they wished to have to have the 20% enrichment, so it’s totally wrong what he said. Someone told him something which he didn’t understand, or someone didn’t understand.

Greg Wilpert: I want to stay with the history of this briefly before we move on to Bolsonaro. That is, why do you think this agreement that you and Lula negotiated with Iran, why did that not in the end become implemented? What do you think happened?

Celso Amorim: Well, I think maybe the political situation… First, it took a long time. Iran was not easy, and maybe other forces in the United States also operated. We were also getting near the midterm elections. Obama might have another, some other priorities like the Obamacare or whatever. Hillary, who I think already thought of being president, was probably subject to other groups. I don’t want to use the word lobbyists, because I’m not sure, but I am still telling you this was proposed maybe six months before. Three weeks before going to Iran, we received a letter by President Obama reiterating the points.

When the agreement was ready, when we came with the agreement, I said, there is a way of saying in Portuguese, “She didn’t read, but she didn’t like.” Many people, I can [inaudible 00:11:07] for instance Roger Cohen from the New York Times, no lover of Ahmadinejad or whoever, he said, “Well, the goalposts are being changed.” I can say a quote also from Mohamed ElBaradei, who had been the chairman of Vienna, the International Atomic Energy, who said, “They can’t take yes for an answer,” because we delivered exactly what had been asked.
I think there was probably some internal situations. I think maybe there was some discomfort with the fact that Brazil and Turkey, two middle countries being able to do what the P5 were not being able to do. I don’t know. Maybe some other aspects as well, as I said. Mind you, I know from declarations by Obama that they were very fearful of Israeli military action. This was not [inaudible 00:12:17]. Obama was really concerned with that possibility. That’s why they reiterated the conditions, because I think that either Obama or his people thought that we would not get these conditions. It took a long time to convince Iran to have the full quantity of 1,200 kilos, to have them sending it to another country, in that case it would be Turkey, and to do it immediately before they received the [inaudible 00:12:49] for their reactor. All that seemed very difficult to get, and maybe because of that, they wrote the letter expecting that we would not get that, but we got it. That was the problem.

Greg Wilpert: I want to turn to the present situation, now that the Trump administration has decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. As we saw in the clip in the introduction, President Bolsonaro has basically completely sided with Trump on this issue. Now, why do you think that is, and who do you think Brazil… That is, who in Brazil is supporting him in this policy reversal and why?

Celso Amorim: Well, President Bolsonaro supported him. So did the Islamic State, because they were very much afraid about General Soleimani. Now, I don’t want to go deeply into that. Many American politicians or U.S. politicians have already said that that was an act of war. That was state terrorism. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to get into that. I think the very least that Brazil should do, if you cannot help in brokering, in helping peace, at least stay out because this is not our war, I would say, for sure.

I think there is an economic damage to Brazil. It’s an important importer of Brazil’s agricultural products. There is also, depending on how things may evolve… Apparently they are not evolving in such a serious situation right now, but we never know. There may be even a risk in terms of security for our country and for our nationals. At the very least, if Brazil cannot help in having peace, at least stay out, not support a bellicose, aggressive action. That’s what I think it should do.

Greg Wilpert: Now, I finally want to turn to a more recent policy issue that seems to characterize the Bolsonaro government, which is the decision of a prosecutor in Brazil to file charges against the journalist Glenn Greenwald. He is being charged for being part of a criminal organization and of having hacked the phones of government officials. Now, this action of course has been widely condemned across the world, and even in Brazil, as an attack on freedom of the press. Now, how does this attack on Greenwald fit into the larger context of the far-right agenda of the Bolsonaro government? That is, just how extreme would you say is Bolsonaro, and what other policy examples would you say are there that would illustrate a slide into the far-right policies that some even would call neofascist?

Celso Amorim: Let me put it the way I see it. I don’t like the Bolsonaro government. I don’t like his foreign policy. I don’t like many things he does, but in that particular case, it is a judge who is doing that. I think that our problem in Brazil really is more serious. You probably have read that the secretary of agriculture was recently dismissed because he really [inaudible 00:16:08] one speech. I think there is a tendency to absorb Nazi, extreme-right values by a strong section of Brazilian society, and this is extremely dangerous and extremely worrying.

I think this judge… Personally, I don’t know, but I don’t believe he was necessarily receiving orders by Bolsonaro. Maybe, but certainly he was trying to please Bolsonaro, which is very bad because judges shouldn’t be looking to please anyone. They should be doing justice. So it’s very bad, but what I want to stress is that it goes beyond Bolsonaro. There is a strong section of Brazilian society, acting by the media, acting later on by fake news, people who think that the communists, I don’t know from where, are invading Brazil, Venezuela, and so forth, and whatever.

This is not something to be taken lightly. I think it’s regrettable. I think it’s certainly, totally incompatible with our own tradition of freedom of the press. Of course, Bolsonaro really condoned it because it made comments which were not proper for a president of a country that claims to be a democracy. But look, Brazil in terms of foreign policy is trying to get near Trump, and Europe like Hungary and Poland are strong, are trying to be defenders of Christianity or their version of Christianity against other religions and against other peoples. This attitude which mixes elements of Nazi ideology with racism, with xenophobia, with hatred against homosexuals and discrimination against women, they all go together.

On the question of the Iran agreement, about one and a half years later, the pressure by Israel became so big in relation to the United States to act militarily against Iran that one of the most important… a person who had been one of the most important advisors to Hillary Clinton, Anne-Marie Slaughter, wrote an article in the Financial Times in which she concludes, “Maybe now it’s time for us to look back to that Turkish-Brazilian proposal.”

Greg Wilpert: Okay. On that note, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Celso Amorim, Brazil’s former minister of foreign affairs and of defense under President Lula da Silva. Thanks again, Mr. Amorim, for having given us your precious time today.

Celso Amorim: Thank you. Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

Greg Wilpert: And thank you for joining the Real News Network.


Gregory Wilpert

Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.