UN chief plans to attend summit in Iran, drawing both support and fire

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will travel to Tehran next week to attend the summit of the Nonaligned Movement, a decision that is drawing criticism from the US and Israel.

By , Staff writer

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    UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks to the media during a press conference in Dili, East Timor, Wednesday, Aug. 15.
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United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will attend next week’s summit of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran, drawing criticism from the United States and Israel and dealing a setback to their effort to isolate Iran.

It is not unusual for a UN secretary-general to attend a meeting of the NAM, which is made up of 120 largely developing nations. But this year's host, Iran, has a controversial nuclear program and is accused of aiding the Assad regime in Syria and threatening the existence of Israel, prompting many Western leaders, politicians, and NGOs to express disapproval of Mr. Ban's decision to attend.

Recommended: Iran's nuclear program: 4 things you probably didn't know

"The fact that the meeting is happening in a country that's in violation of so many of its international obligations and posing a threat to neighbors ... sends a very strange signal with regard to support for the international order, rule of law, etc.," US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke out against Ban’s attendance, saying: "To grant legitimacy, however unintentional, to a regime that openly calls for the elimination of another UN member state will stain you and the organization you lead."

But many see Iran’s contentious statements and international isolation as the very reason Ban should attend the conference, focusing on a diplomatic opportunity. Ban has raised the volume on his criticism of Iran's leadership in the leadup to the summit, just last week describing the verbal attack of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Israel as “offensive and inflammatory,” according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Ahmadinejad stated that there was no place for the Jewish state in the Middle East, and in the past has questioned whether the Holocaust of World War II actually happened. Additionally, last week, Mr. Khamenei said Israel would one day be returned to the Palestinian nation and cease to exist. 

Nonetheless, a diplomatic source anonymously told Reuters news service that the nonaligned movement is “a very important bloc of nations … [Ban] can’t not go.”

A Security Council diplomat said it was important for the secretary-general to go. He said Ban should not turn his back on the entire non-aligned movement because one member, Iran, happens to have a president who doubts the Holocaust and questions Israel's right to exist.

A UN spokesman said the NAM represents two-thirds of UN member states, reports a second Reuters story.

According to Ali Reza Miryousefi, the press officer of the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN, the Nonaligned Movement in Tehran will help the group of nations “realize the movement’s objectives,” reports the Tehran Times. In response to a Washington Post editorial published on Aug. 15, Mr. Miryousefi wrote an Op-Ed headlined “The Importance of the Tehran Summit,” criticizing the Post's stand:

The Post’s Aug. 15 editorial “Fool’s errand” unjustifiably smeared Iran and mocked the upcoming Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran as a “bacchanal of nonsense.” This ignored the growing importance of the movement, made up of the majority of UN member states, in international affairs.

In light of its focus on multilateral cooperation, disarmament, sustainable world peace, rights of nations and horizontal relations defying hegemonic structures, the Non-Aligned Movement is a major cross-regional group in the United Nations, and U.N. leaders have always participated in its summits. By bringing dozens of world leaders together, the summit promises to make significant contributions to the movement’s lofty objectives.

Diplomats don’t expect Ban to raise the topic of Iran’s nuclear program – which Iran says is a peaceful initiative and the West claims is working toward the nuclear weapons – during the summit, according to Reuters. Many believe he is likely to broach these topics, however, during his probable private meeting with the Iranian president, and UN Spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters that, "With respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Secretary-General will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community." 

Ban is "fully aware of the sensitivities" linked to his visit, but he is also aware of his responsibilities as head of the United Nations, Mr. Nesirky said.

According to Foreign Policy, the US response to Ban’s attendance of the NAM summit, which will take place from Aug. 26-31, “reflects the heightened sensitivity to engaging Iran” during an election year.  

“Why the Washington furor? This is an election year in which Iran is perhaps the only foreign-policy issue that has political traction with any constituency in the United States," said Jeffrey Laurenti, an expert on the United Nations at the Century Foundation. "This is what a secretary-general is supposed to do – explore any diplomatic opening. The fact that Washington is in a period when all diplomatic openings are slammed shut does not mean that the rest of the world would automatically follow suit."

The NAM’s mission is to improve and enhance national development of member nations by “strengthening and expanding South-South Technical Cooperation” in international development, according to the Nonaligned Movement website.  Members include Egypt, Cuba, Ethiopia, Bolivia, the Maldives, and Iran, and according to Press TV, 31 heads of state are expected to attend the 16th NAM summit, where the rotating chairmanship will be transferred from Egypt to Iran.  

Recommended: Iran's nuclear program: 4 things you probably didn't know
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