Iran's charm offensive at NAM summit thwarted by Syria, nuclear work

Iran's effort to prove that international isolation efforts have failed was undermined by discord with the UN and Egypt over its nuclear work and continued support for Syria's President Assad.

Hamid Forootan/ISNA/REUTERS
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, August 30.

Iran's bid to break free of US-led efforts to isolate it took form today as Iranian leaders convened a two-day summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran.

With United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and dozens of world leaders and government ministers in attendance, Iran's supreme religious leader rejected use of nuclear weapons as an "unforgivable sin" and lambasted the US, Western powers, Israel, and the "spread of the instruments of hegemony."

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told the conference that the UN Security Council – which has imposed four sets of sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program – had an "illogical, unjust, and completely undemocratic structure and mechanism," which is a "flagrant form of dictatorship ... whose expiration date has passed." 

He also noted that decades ago, Iran was the first to propose a nuclear-free Middle East, and said, according to an official translation: "Nuclear weapons neither ensure security, nor do they consolidate political power, rather they are a threat to both security and political power."

Iran today assumed the rotating leadership of the 120-member group of countries, which consider themselves unaligned with any major power bloc. The conference is being officially portrayed by Tehran as proof that it is the US and Israel – not Iran – that are isolated over Iran's nuclear program. The US actively tried to discourage Mr. Ban and NAM member nations from traveling to Iran for the conference. 

Khamenei hailed an "opportunity that might never arise again," because the world was in "transition" to a new world order. "Our view is that the control room of the world should not be managed by the dictatorial will of a few Western countries," he said. 

UN mars Tehran's charm offensive

Stringent US and European Union sanctions have targeted all aspects of Iran's economy, including banking transactions and oil sales to third countries, and the Islamic Republic has been hit in recent years by a covert war of assassinations of nuclear scientists, espionage, mysterious explosions, and computer viruses aimed at slowing Iran's nuclear progress, all of which Iran blames on the US and Israel.

But this appears to have had little impact on Iran's ability to bring NAM members to Tehran.

Delegates to the summit saw outside the venue the burnt vehicle remains, placed there by the government, in which Iranian scientists died when explosive charges were stuck to their cars with magnets by assassins on motorcycles. 

But Iran's charm offensive and attempts to seize the high ground were dampened by the words of the UN chief and by Mohamed Morsi, the newly elected president of Egypt who became the first Egyptian leader to visit since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

In his speech, Mr. Ban told the Iranian leadership that, "for the sake of regional peace," it should cooperate fully with efforts by the UN nuclear watchdog agency to clear up remaining questions about alleged weapons-related work. He also called on Iran to fully comply with UN Security Council resolutions, which require at least a temporary halt to all uranium enrichment.

The speech echoed accounts of the meeting yesterday between a reportedly tough-talking Ban and Khamenei.

At the podium today, Ban scolded Iranian leaders as "utterly wrong" for describing UN-member Israel as having no right to exist, and for denying the events of the Holocaust. Ban also warned all sides to ease their rhetorical venom, which several times in the past year appeared to have brought Israel and Iran to the brink of conflict.

“I urge all the parties to stop provocative and inflammatory threats,” said Ban. "A war of words can quickly spiral into a war of violence. Bluster can so easily become bloodshed."

Regarding the Arab Spring, Ban said it had "come from within," by people "who stood up" for their rights. That view echoes Tehran, which praised the collapse of pro-West regimes last year in Egypt and Tunisia – as well as Muammar Qaddafi's Libya – as an "Islamic awakening."

The Syrian divide

But Ban and Morsi both veered from Iran's preferred script when discussing the antiregime uprising in Syria, Iran's closest ally in the Arab world, where an 18-month rebellion and government crackdown has left thousands dead.

Initial peaceful anti-government demonstrations were "met by ruthless force," Ban said. He called on all sides to stop giving arms, clearly referring to Russia and Iran on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, and to the US, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia on the side of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

"Now we face the real risk of long-term civil war, destroying Syria's rich tapestry of communities," Ban said. "Those who provide the arms to either side in Syria are contributing to the misery. Further militarization is not the answer. The situation cannot be resolved with the blood and the bodies of more than 18,000 people and counting. There should be no more bullets and bombs."

Morsi expressed Egypt's support for the "revolution" in Syria. "The bloodshed in Syria hangs upon all of us, it will not stop if we don't act," Morsi told the conference. The Egyptian leader's speech prompted the Syrian delegation to leave the summit.

"We express our solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost legitimacy," Morsi said. "This is not only an ethical duty, but also a political and a strategic necessity."

Despite the frequent claims from Tehran that its own revolution three decades ago has served as the model for the Arab Spring revolts, Khamenei – who first coined the term "Islamic awakening" in Iran's discourse last year – made no mention of Syria at all.

In a single reference to the "Islamic awakening," Khamenei said the "fall of the dictatorships in North Africa, which were dependent on America and were accomplices to the Zionist regime," should be considered a "great opportunity" to boost the influence of the NAM.

The anti-US trope

But Iran's religious leader, who has overseen fitful nuclear negotiations with world powers throughout this year, focused mostly on Iran's arch foes, the US and Israel, and how they used the UN Security Council.

"It is through abusing this improper mechanism that America and its accomplices have managed to disguise their bullying as noble concepts and impose it on the world," Khamenei declared.

"They protect the interests of the West in the name of 'human rights.' They interfere militarily in other countries in the name of 'democracy,'" said Khamenei. "Torture and assassination are permissible and completely ignored if they are carried out by America, the Zionists and their puppets.... Good and evil are defined in a completely one-sided and selective way."

Khamenei's anti-US views are not new, but the nationality of one visitor to his office yesterday was. Sitting beside Ban during his meeting with Khamenei was UN Undersecretary for Political Affairs Jeff Feltman, the former US assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs who until late spring oversaw US Mideast policy.

Khamenei rarely meets Western or European leaders of any kind, a chat with Russia's Vladimir Putin in 2007 being an uncommon exception. Mr. Feltman's presence, though under UN auspices, was the first such face-to-face contact between Khamenei and any American diplomat in decades.

When asked if Ban or Feltman had conveyed a message from Washington, US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor: "Nope."

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