NAM summit: Iran attempts to prove Western efforts to isolate it have failed

Though Iran pulled out all the stops this week as host of the Non-Aligned Movement summit, it was met with some heavy international criticism.

Majid Asgaripour/Mehr News Agency/Reuters
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi (l.-r.) attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, Iran, Thursday.

The news anchor on Iran's state-run PressTV did not mince his words: The summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) wrapping up today in Tehran was the "most important" political event in the 33-year history of the Islamic Republic. 

Iran certainly mounted an extravagant show for the high-ranking delegations from 120 nations as it sought to demonstrate it was engaged with the world, not isolated from it. 

But what did Iran gain with its attempt to counter US-led efforts to isolate it? And what did it lose, as two of its most steadfast policies – support for the embattled Syrian regime, and nuclear defiance – came under attack from key speakers? 

"They got, on the one hand, what they wanted – to get a high profile and show they are not diplomatically isolated," says a senior Farsi-speaking European diplomat posted in Tehran until recently. "But they had to pay a political cost for that." 

That cost came from Egypt's new President Mohamed Morsi, who gave a ringing endorsement of the anti-government rebellion in Syria – Iran's closest regional ally – in his speech as he transferred the NAM chairmanship from Egypt to Iran. 

Mr. Morsi said Syria's 18-month uprising needed to be supported and was an extension of the Arab Spring revolt that toppled his predecessor in Egypt, the pro-Western Hosni Mubarak. When it happened in Cairo, Iran praised a regional "Islamic Awakening."

Yet Iran argues that Syria is a different game, labeling anti-regime activists "terrorists" bent on "sedition." Today Iranian official media seemed unsure how to handle Morsi's remarks, and official translations on Iranian broadcast media were sometimes manipulated to seem as if Morsi was actually endorsing the Syrian regime. 

Likewise, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – who resisted American pressure not to visit Iran – chastised the Iranian leadership on a number of issues, such as human rights and a lack of cooperation with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on its controversial nuclear program.

"They got Morsi in for a few hours, and then Morsi took the stage and said, you are on the wrong side of fence on Syria," says the veteran diplomat who asked not to be further identified. "They got Ban Ki-moon, and he said, 'You are not cooperating enough with the IAEA'"... They got two speeches that I'm sure they wanted to be completely different."

Planting 'the seeds of instability'

While praising Iran's long history and lyrical poetic tradition, Mr. Ban kept up his diplomatic criticism of Iranian policies today during a speech at the School of International Relations in Tehran.

"Restricting freedom of expression and suppressing social activism will only set back development and plant the seeds of instability," Ban said. "It is especially important for the voices of Iran's people to be heard during next year's presidential election."

Ban said he had therefore urged the Iranian regime to "release opposition leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, and social activists to create the conditions for free expression and open debate."

Those words were an indirect reference to Iran's ill-fated June 2009 presidential election, which reinstalled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but prompted months of pro-democracy street protests that led to scores, if not hundreds, of deaths in the crackdown.

'The cost of Iran's current trajectory'

Digging deeper, Ban said: "My purpose today is to highlight the cost of Iran's current trajectory, both at home and in the international arena. Any country at odds with the international community is one that denies itself much-needed investment and finds itself isolated from the thrust of common progress."

Iran is currently under four sets of UN Security Council sanctions, and a host of other more intrusive US and European measures that target economic activities from banking to shipping to oil sales, because of its nuclear program.

Iran insists its advanced nuclear efforts aim only to make energy, peacefully, but it has failed to convincingly deny to the IAEA allegations of weapons-related work.

Iran has also been targeted by a covert war that includes espionage, sophisticated computer viruses, and assassinations of at least four scientists linked to nuclear work. Iran blames the US and Israel for these actions.

"Iran is facing a very difficult time, as far as its struggle with the United States and the West," Sadegh Zibakalam of Tehran University told Al Jazeera English (AJE). "So the NAM in Tehran was terribly important for the Iranian leaders because they demonstrated to the United States... to enemies of Iran, that they have not succeeded in isolating Iran."

The US pressured NAM members not to go to Tehran, but many countries nevertheless "sent their highest delegates – their head of state, kings, prime ministers," noted Mr. Zibakalam. "So I think...Iran can justifiably say, 'I have scored some points against the United States and Israel.'"

'What Iran does not want to admit'

That view was countered by Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"What Iran does not want to admit [is] that many of these countries that participated in this summit, they are not non-aligned anymore, they have close relationships with the United States, countries like Saudi [Arabia] Bahrain, they do not have good relations with Iran," Mr. Khalaji told AJE.

"The fact that many countries participated in this summit doesn't mean that Iran can make up [for] its political isolation," said Khalaji. "Iran has to look for [a] real solution for its problem, instead of focusing on propaganda and public diplomacy."

Both were on display in Tehran during the two-day summit meeting.

"They put the cars of the murdered scientists in front of the venue, then they had a special press briefing from the families of the murdered scientists," says the European diplomat. "They were feeding the media all these stories, 'We are the victims here, and we are getting killed,' which done with a slightly lighter touch may have worked. But they've just overdone it."

"Instead, coming out of Iran were stories that this was not a successful conference for the Iranians, because the two issues they didn't want to talk about were talked about from the very beginning, right at the top: the nuclear dossier and Syria."

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