Iran Human RightsBrazil's surprise election issue: Iran

Brazil’s surprise election issue: Iran

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Reuters: For sunbathers on Rio’s famed Ipanema Beach last weekend, the sight was about as odd as an oncoming snowstorm.

By Brian Winter

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 12 (Reuters) – For sunbathers on Rio’s famed Ipanema Beach last weekend, the sight was about as odd as an oncoming snowstorm.

“Respect life, Ahmadinejad!” read a banner trailing from an airplane flying above the shore.

Brazil’s warm relationship with Iran has become a surprise issue in October’s presidential elections, as candidates try to seize on fears that the ruling party is too cozy with foreign dictators and harbors authoritarian tendencies of its own.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has dedicated much of his final year in office to trying to defuse the confrontation between the West and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over Iran’s nuclear plans.

Lula, who says Ahmadinejad’s ambitions are misunderstood, is forbidden from running for a third term. But his preferred successor and former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, has had to parry accusations that their Workers’ Party is soft on censorship and intolerant of opposing political views.

“This is all about human rights,” opposition candidate Jose Serra said in a campaign speech last week. He said the Iranian regime “stones women to death, arrests journalists … and hangs dissidents for the simple fact of thinking differently.”

“In my government, we’re going to reject that,” he said.

As a thriving democracy with a robust economy and a free press, Brazil’s politics are not remotely comparable to Iran’s. Yet some voters have never overcome their suspicions of the Workers’ Party’s origins as a hard-left party of trade union leaders, some of whom still advocate placing the media and vast sectors of the economy under tight control of the state.

“I have no doubt that Lula and his friends would make Brazil more like Iran if they could,” said Luiz Comim, a lawyer, as he bought a newspaper in Rio.

IRANIAN WOMAN’S PLIGHT STRIKES A NERVE

The Iran issue has provided Serra, who is trailing Rousseff in polls, with a rare opportunity to differentiate himself since both candidates are relatively market-friendly center-leftists. Serra has shied away from direct criticism on most other issues because Lula is massively popular and Brazil’s economy is booming.

But members of Serra’s party have accused Lula of unnecessarily straining relations with the United States over Iran.

Rousseff has defended Lula’s Iran policy, saying it could help avoid war in the Middle East.

She has also rejected the notion that she or Lula sympathize with authoritarian or populist governments in Iran, Venezuela and Cuba, saying that “good contacts” are crucial with all countries and that Brazil’s situation is different.

Indeed, the Workers’ Party has become more pragmatic, especially since Lula took office in 2003. However, just last month, Rousseff had to backpedal after signing a manifesto calling for higher taxes for the rich and reforms that would aid the expropriation of large land holdings.

The platform was posted on Rousseff’s Web site and then withdrawn hours later. She later said the document was written by party members who did not represent her views.

For now, Iran does not appear to be a game-changing issue among most Brazilian voters, who are focusing more on the economy. Rousseff has opened up a five to 10 percentage point lead in polls and some analysts say only a major event like a corruption scandal could cost her the race.

Yet there are flickers of dissent.

Twitter users continue to post hundreds of messages a week calling for Lula to intercede on behalf of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for an extra-marital relationship. Lula offered asylum to Mohammadi Ashtiani earlier this month, prompting an embarrassing public rejection of his offer by Iran.

“People may not understand Iran, but they understand a woman getting stoned to death,” said political analyst Maria do Socorro Souza Braga. “In those terms, it’s possible that this issue could have some electoral effect.” (Editing by Todd Benson and Vicki Allen)

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