UN chief Ban in Tehran: Is he coddling Iran or just doing his job?

The decision by Ban Ki-moon to visit Iran for the non-aligned summit was criticized by the US and others, but the UN chief sees the trip as a chance to raise international concerns with the regime, as he did Wednesday.

Mohsen Rafinejad/Presidency Office/AP
In this photo released by the official website of the Iranian Presidency Office, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (l.) talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (r.) during their meeting in Tehran, Iran, on Aug. 29. An unidentified interpreter sits at center.

By visiting Tehran, is United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon simply doing his job as the chief representative of the international community – or is he allowing himself to be used by one of the world’s most punished and problematic regimes?

Mr. Ban’s arrival in Tehran Wednesday for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit and meetings with Iranian officials has spawned sharp criticism of the UN chief that he is playing into a pariah regime’s drive for legitimacy.

But before he arrived, his spokesman Martin Nesirky called Ban’s visit an “opportunity,” saying he would not be shy about addressing “the clear concerns and expectations of the international community,” and the UN chief wasted little time Wednesday in raising the issues of the violence in Syria and human rights abuses in Iran.

But that is unlikely to satisfy critics such as the US, Israel, Canada, and some other Western countries who see the UN chief’s visit to Iran as suggesting international acceptance of the government’s behavior at a crucial moment when it is accused of provoking the world with its nuclear program, its threats against Israel, and its role in the Syrian conflict.

Other critics say Ban’s visit suggests that a world where democracy and human rights are expanding elsewhere – particularly in the Middle East – is forgetting how the Iranian government crushed its own pro-democracy revolution in 2009 and is becoming more repressive of the very universal rights the UN claims to defend.

A Ban visit to Tehran “would not send a good signal,” State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week.

“We believe your attendance at the [Tehran] summit will only serve to legitimize a regime that is the world’s greatest state sponsor of terrorism and that is pursuing an illicit nuclear weapons program in contravention of numerous UN Security Council resolutions, and whose leader just this month has called for the annihilation of the State of Israel, the latest in a series of similar statements,” two US senators – Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York and Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois – said in a letter to Ban Tuesday.

But Ban decided to go to Tehran, both to convey to Iran, which is a UN member, the international community’s concerns about its behavior on the world stage, and to demonstrate to the NAM, the largest grouping of countries after the UN with 120 members, that he works with all UN members and doesn’t answer to any one group.

The NAM summit, which will draw leaders including Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari,  and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, runs Thursday and Friday. 

Ban’s aides insist he is not being hoodwinked by Tehran and sees the visit as an opportunity to address some of the most pressing threats to international peace and stability.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Tuesday that Ban will cite international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, its involvement in terrorism and the Syrian conflict, and the critical state of human rights in Iran in his discussions with Iranian officials.

And on Wednesday Ban followed through at a press conference with the speaker of Iran’s Parliament, Ali Larijani, saying the two had discussed how the UN could work with the Iranian government “to improve the human rights situation in Iran. We have our serious concerns on the human rights abuses and violations in this country."

Ban also met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shortly after arriving in Tehran and was expected to meet later with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The UN chief told his interlocutors that Iran should use its influence in Syria to help stop the violence.

Earlier, his spokesman, Mr. Nesirky, told reporters that his boss is “fully aware of the sensitivities” surrounding his visit, but he added that the UN chief sees it as his responsibility “to pursue diplomatic engagement with all [UN] member states in the interest of peacefully addressing vital matters of peace and security.”

There was little doubt, however, that Iran hoped to use both Ban’s visit and the NAM summit to show the world – and the Iranian people – that Western efforts to isolate it have failed.

Trying to position itself as a peacemaker, Iran said on Tuesday that it would use the NAM summit to promote the idea of a cease-fire in Syria, to be followed by talks between the warring parties. Iran’s oil minister, Rostam Qasemi, said Wednesday that Iran was using the large gathering of officials from NAM countries to negotiate oil contracts. The US is slapping sanctions not just on Iranian petroleum and financial institutions, but on countries that buy Iranian oil products. Earlier this summer the European Union implemented an embargo on Iranian oil imports.

What worries international human rights organizations is that the Iranian government will use the appearance of international acceptance of the regime to signal Iran’s human rights promoters that the world is on the government’s side.

Perhaps the loudest warnings about Iran’s goals in hosting the NAM summit – and the sharpest criticism of Ban for attending – came from Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it would be a “big mistake” for Ban to visit Tehran, especially given that Iranian officials continue to threaten Israel, a UN member.

Iranian officials counter that it is Israel that is threatening Iran with military attack over a nuclear program it insists has only peaceful purposes.

In any case, at least one country attending the NAM summit says it will not sit idly by if Iran uses the gathering to attack Israel. Australia says it has ordered its diplomats to walk out of the meeting on the first sign of Iran using its global stage to threaten Israel.

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