Non-Aligned Summit Belies Isolation of Iran
As hosts of the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, NAM, in Tehran, Iranian officials tried to advance their agenda. Top of their list was to secure NAM's endorsement of their right to peaceful nuclear energy. Next was to get NAM to condemn foreign armed interference in Syria, a strategic ally of Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979. The summit's final communiqué supported Iran's stance on the nuclear issue. But it made no mention of backing for the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran's officials also saw an opportunity to present their country as a victim of international terrorism, not perpetrator. To that end, they displayed the cars wrecked in the killings of five Iranian nuclear scientists - widely attributed to agents of Mossad, the Israeli secret service - outside the conference venue.
By the summit's end, Iran could claim that US-led efforts to isolate it diplomatically and economically with unilateral sanctions had failed and that it had made progress in presenting itself as a victim of international terrorism rather than perpetrator.
In the process, however, Iran had to endure jarring criticism from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, on its failure to come clean on past nuclear activity.
The mere fact of Iran hosting the NAM summit - attended by all 120 members, a quarter represented by their heads of state, but also most of its 21 observers - contradicts the Western-inspired notion of its diplomatic isolation. For the next three years, its leader will act as the secretary-general of the NAM, based at the United Nations. In 2015 chairmanship will pass to Venezuela, another bête noire of Washington.
Before the summit, both the United States and Israel publicly urged Ban to boycott the event, asserting that the Iranian government would manipulate this opportunity to deflect attention from its own failings in human rights and cooperation with the IAEA on its nuclear program. Ban ignored the advice, replying that as the UN secretary-general he had "a mandate to engage with all the member states of the United Nations" As it is, NAM's membership is second only to the UN's.
Iran has a positive trade balance with 92 of the 179 countries that traded with it during the fiscal year ending March 2012. For example, in defiance of Washington's call to end purchases of Iran's oil, India imported Iranian petroleum worth $12.5 billion while exporting $2.5 billion worth goods to the Islamic Republic. To rectify the imbalance, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought a delegation of 250 businessmen and industrialists with him to confer with Iranian counterparts while he attended the NAM summit.
Iran is the second largest source of imported Middle Eastern oil for India after Saudi Arabia. Given the urgent need for energy security to ensure robust GDP growth, Delhi has no intention of accepting the extraterritorial application of US law imposing unilateral economic sanctions on Iran. It abides only by UN Security Council resolutions. That's also the case with China and Russia, which attended the NAM gathering as observers.
Much to the disappointment of Western capitals, the summit's final communiqué, published 31 August, supported Iran's claim that under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons it signed in 1968, it has the right to peaceful nuclear energy as well as the right to ownership of a full nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment, a contentious issue. The document stated that these rights belong to all NAM members.
Iran gained the unanimous backing of NAM attendees after a speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 30 August. "The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the use of nuclear, chemical and similar weapons as a great and unforgivable sin," he declared. "We proposed the idea of the Middle East free of nuclear weapons, and we are committed to it. Our motto is nuclear power for all and nuclear weapons for none."
Before Khamenei's speech, the families of the assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists were seated in the front row, holding photos of the victims. Equally effective was the organizers' decision to give all NAM delegations free access to the Natanz nuclear facility where uranium enrichment is taking place.
Khamanei said nothing about the conflict in Syria, which has claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 civilians and 8,000 members of the security forces. He failed to refer even to his government's proposal for a three-month truce between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels as a preamble to talks between the warring sides, which had secured the backing of 30 states three weeks earlier at the Tehran Consultative Conference on Syria
President Mohamed Morsi, popularly elected president of Egypt since June, exploited this chink in Khamenei's armor.
Asserting that the world had a "moral duty" to support Syria's rebels, Morsi said, "Our solidarity with the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is... a political and strategic necessity." He called on Iran to participate in a four-member contact group including Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia - all three being Sunni states - to mediate an end to the Syrian crisis. He left out Iraq, where the popularly elected government is led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who famously described himself as Shia first and Iraqi second. Morsi's pro-Sunni bias was unmistaken.
But before Iran could officially respond to his proposal, Syrian rebels summarily rejected Iran's participation in any peace efforts. So, too, did the United States, which two months earlier had threatened to boycott the meeting called by Kofi Annan, the UN's special envoy on Syria, in Geneva if Iran were invited to attend.
The Obama administration doesn't share Ban's view that Tehran has a key role in ending Syria's civil war. In the upcoming US presidential contest, Barack Obama faces Republican Mitt Romney, who agrees with Israel's plans to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Given this, Obama is unlikely to soften his hostility toward Iran.
Ban used his speech to prove that his diplomatic integrity wasn't compromised by participation in the NAM summit, describing Iran's verbal threats against Israel and its denial of the Holocaust as "outrageous." During interaction with students and teachers at Tehran's School of International Relations, he urged Iran's top officials to release opposition leaders and political activists to create a level playing field before the presidential poll next year.
In meetings with Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ban said that Iran should comply with IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions and do more to assure the world that their nuclear program was for peaceful purposes. Ban was referring to the latest IAEA report noting that Iran failed to give inspectors access to a site at Parchin, southeast of Tehran, believed to be a facility for testing high explosives.
Iran's behavior is open to different interpretations: It intends to keep Western opponents guessing about its capabilities, a strategy that has served it well so far. Or its policymakers think that, when the West is waging economic and diplomatic war against their nation, cooperating more than what's absolutely essential with the IAEA could be construed as weakness
With the NAM summit unanimously supporting Iran's right to enriching uranium, its leaders do not want to be seen as weaklings. At the very least, they estimate that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be forced to rethink his plan to stage air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, openly opposed not only by Israel's former and serving defense and intelligence chiefs, but also Obama.