Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been spending a lot of time with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lately, to the consternation of the former’s supporters at home and friends elsewhere in the West. Brazil, currently a member of the U.N. Security Council, has been unapologetic about its newfound relationship with Iran, which produced a dubious nuclear fuel-swap deal last month; it defends Iran’s right to enrich uranium and rejects any idea of tough economic sanctions. The budding friendship has baffled Washington: Why would this Latin American country, otherwise a U.S. ally, insist on cozying up to Iran to the detriment of its relations closer to home?
There are several possible explanations. Brazil has long harbored its own nuclear aspirations, and increasingly seeks to define its own foreign policy and emerge as an independent global power. But Lula’s motives may be less complicated than all that: There are also $10 billion in Brazilian-Iranian trade deals to be had. Perhaps the most intriguing, and strategic, aspect of those trade relations has to do with sugar.