RIO DE JANEIRO Brazil aims to burnish its growing diplomatic stature by pushing Middle East peace next week as it welcomes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just two weeks after a visit by Israel's president.
For Ahmadinejad, the visits to Brazil and its South American neighbors Venezuela and Bolivia offer a chance to expand Iran's ties in a region where he already has a firm ally in Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez.
Brazil, which has taken a much more conciliatory line over Iran's nuclear ambitions than Western allies, says talking to Iran is more likely to lead to progress on the nuclear issue and Middle East peace than isolating it.
But President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's decision to open a dialogue with Ahmadinejad also carries risks if Brazil is seen as failing to press Western concerns over its nuclear program and complaints of human rights abuses.
The dialogue has the backing of U.S. President Barack Obama, who Brazilian government officials say asked Lula to talk with Ahmadinejad during a meeting in London in March.
"We believe it is much more important to maintain a dialogue with Iran than to simply say no, leaving them stigmatized and isolated," Marco Aurelio Garcia, Lula's foreign policy advisor, told reporters in Rio de Janeiro last week. "Obama said a dialogue between Iran and Brazil is important."
Obama has said time is running out for diplomacy to resolve a long standoff over Iran's nuclear program, which the West fears is aimed at making weapons.
As it prepares to take up a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council next year, Brazil is eager to show it is a serious diplomatic player and says it wants a role in fostering dialogue in the Middle East.
Israeli President Shimon Peres visited the South American nation last week and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits this week and will meet Lula, who plans to travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories in March.
Analysts are skeptical that Brazil, a country with little diplomatic track record in the Middle East, can achieve breakthroughs with Iran or on an Israel-Palestinian peace deal.
"I think the chances of Lula playing the role of bringing the U.S. and Iran together are negligible. I think if that's the goal, they are setting themselves up for failure," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
"I think it's to reinforce the sense that they are a great power and can enjoy a range of contacts across the ideological spectrum," he said.
"NOT JUST A THREAT"
Garcia said Lula, who has shaped Brazil as a leader of the developing world in trade talks, made clear to Ahmadinejad that he should not make attacks on Israel or repeat his previous denial of the Holocaust during his visit. Brazil has defended Iran's right to develop peaceful nuclear power, pointing to its own development of nuclear energy as a model.
Venezuela's Chavez sees Iran, along with China and Russia, as key to achieving his goal of weakening U.S. influence in Latin America, and has established ever-closer ties with Tehran in recent years. Iran is helping Venezuela explore for uranium, and Washington sees the cozy relationship between the two as a potential security risk.
New York's District Attorney is investigating some Venezuelan banks for sanction-busting links to the Middle Eastern nation and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has accused Iran of subversive activity in Latin America.
Brazil's failure to criticize Iran strongly for its secrecy over its nuclear program or over Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election this year has drawn concern in the West that its approach may be too lenient.
Lula, whose government has been criticized for failing to condemn human rights abuses by other countries, has said the world shouldn't meddle in Iran's affairs and compared its election dispute to the one in the United States in 2000.
"It's quite interesting that they (Brazil) want to do this bridge-building stuff yet they are very silent when it comes to U.N. debates on these things," a Western diplomat in Brazil said on condition of anonymity.
"To be a real player you've got to say tough things when it's not always palatable."
(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas; Editing by Vicki Allen)