BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva put his country in the global spotlight this week when he helped broker a controversial fuel swap deal for Iran's nuclear program.
But he may have angered the United States and other powerful allies with the agreement, which is similar to a previous United Nations plan that aimed to keep Tehran from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.
"It's a victory for diplomacy," Lula, a former trade unionist who has promoted the interests of developing nations, told Brazilian radio a day after Iran agreed to trade some of its enriched uranium in return for fuel rods for a reactor.
A handful of influential Western nations, along with Russia and China, appeared set to rebuff the deal in the United Nations Security Council at Washington's urging and push for a move to impose a fourth round of U.N. sanctions on Iran.
Brazil, a rising global and regional power, now risks looking naive or, worse yet, an accomplice to Iran's nuclear ambitions if Tehran continues to breach Security Council resolutions and drags its feet on international inspections.
"Brazil helped Iran get back to the negotiating table and that's clearly positive -- Lula can claim credit for that," said Alcides Costa Vaz, vice-director of the Foreign Relations Institute at the University of Brasilia.
"But it's a risky and fragile bet," he added.
Even before the new deal signed by Lula, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkey's prime minister, Tehran had made it clear it did not intend to suspend domestic uranium enrichment.
Tehran denies Western charges that it is developing atomic weapons, saying it only wants to generate electricity.
"Brazil and Turkey should be congratulated for their efforts, but they made two huge mistakes. They're leaving Iran with sufficient enriched uranium to build a bomb and they haven't ensured full international inspections," said Robert Pastor, a U.S. national security adviser for Latin America under former President Jimmy Carter.
"So the question is did Brazil play a constructive role or did they undermine the international consensus on Iran," added Pastor, who is currently a professor at the American University in Washington.
Brazil acknowledges the deal is incomplete but insists it lays the ground for further talks.
"This agreement won't resolve all the questions on the nuclear issue. But it's a passport for broader talks to create confidence in the international community and ... allow Iran to exercise its legitimate right to nuclear energy for peaceful use, including uranium enrichment," Lula said.
Lula is no newcomer to difficult negotiations. He launched his political career as a tough-talking union leader who was briefly jailed by Brazil's 1964-85 military regime and helped bring about democracy. On his watch, Brazil has also been a key player in global trade and environmental talks.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers on Tuesday that major powers including the United States, Russia and China, have agreed on a draft sanctions resolution to be considered by the Security Council.
Brazil has said it opposes more sanctions on Iran. Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, said later on Tuesday that the agreement with Iran was in line with what Western countries had been demanding.
Lula's diplomacy, which comes at the end of his two terms in office, could antagonize Washington to the point where it jeopardizes support for Brazil's bid to win a permanent U.N. Security Council seat, advisors say.
"Lula has insisted on one thing: 'I know it's a risky bet to have come (to Iran), it'll irritate some countries and could risk the ambition of widening the Security Council,'" Marco Aurelio Garcia, Lula's foreign policy advisor, told reporters in Madrid on Tuesday.
But for Lula, who has been praised for his defense of the poor and wants to portray Brazil as an unaligned power with an independent voice, the risk may be worth taking.
Kevin Casas-Zamora, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former vice-president of Costa Rica, said reforming the Security Council was a long-shot anyway and that the United States relied too much on Brazil in Latin America to sanction it beyond a verbal reprimand.
"The downside for Lula is a temporary spat with Washington and looking like the Iranians have pulled his leg," he said. "The upside is they're playing in the big league now, which Brazil has never done before."
(Additional reporting by Carlos Ruano Navarro in Madrid)
Editing by Paul Simao