Nonaligned Summit Doesn’t Break Iran’s Isolation

Many nonaligned nations are just as concerned about Iran’s intentions as the West.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India shake hands in Tehran, August 29
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India shake hands in Tehran, August 29 (Presidency of Iran)

On a normal day, the Islamic Republic of Iran is seen as one of the most isolated nations in the world. The Iranian government is suffering from multiple layers of economic sanctions in response to the country’s lackluster cooperation with international nuclear inspectors. An additional array of financial restrictions has hit the Iranian economy hard over the past year, as the European Union, the United Nations Security Council and the United States have increased the pressure on Tehran over its support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, the only ally that Iran has in the Middle East is Syria, currently in the middle of a bloody civil war.

But this week, Iran has escaped its isolation through the hosting of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), a grouping of mostly developing nations that pledge noninterference and independence from the global powers that are often seen running the show. The movement holds a summit for its members once every few years and by the sheer force of luck, it was Tehran’s turn to make sure the meetings went smoothly.

The summit began this Sunday and ends on Friday. For most of the states that participate, the NAM conference is a somewhat nonsensational event, a time for the developing nations of the world to gather and discuss the issues that concern them most.

For Iran, however, this year’s conference is an opportunity to improve its reputation and paint itself as a nation that is still at the center of international politics, despite the numerous sanctions that have been levied against it for its suspicious nuclear work.

The United States clearly understand the significance of the summit. Weeks prior to the NAM’s opening session, Washington tried to persuade some world leaders to boycott the event. Officials from the Obama Administration and senior American legislators urged Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, to skip the summit. His presence, the United States warned, could ruin the campaign of isolation that has been building against Iran for the past decade.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally called Ban Ki-moon last week, asking him to write off visiting as a matter of principle.

To the dismay of both nations, Ban decided that he was obligated to participate as head of the United Nations. As was expected, Iranian leaders have relished the news, viewing the secretary general’s appearance as a small triumph against what they perceive as an American-Israeli campaign to purposively weaken their country.

The Iranian government has put on a massive display of appreciation by clearing Tehran of cars to make travel easier for the delegates, repainting highways, issuing a public holiday for all Iranians and making sure that world leaders descending on the capital are comfortable.

All of this effort, however, could come to naught when the real issues are discussed. Regardless of how many delegates arrive or who actually shows up, many of the bloc’s powers are at odds over Iran’s steadfast support for Bashar al-Assad and his campaign to beat back a resurgent opposition movement through the use of warplanes and helicopters.

The NAM has a history of opposing the production, testing and use of nuclear weapons, the very capacity that Tehran is suspected of building. Even if Ban Ki-moon is present, he is known to speak sternly to Iran’s leaders for their noncompliance and lack of transparency in the nuclear realm.

So, while the Islamic republic is trying to steer the conference in a positive direction and portray it as an example of its success in the face of Western pressure, its hosting of the Nonaligned Movement could turn out to be a blessing for the very powers that have worked hard to obstruct it. Israel and the United States may not be happy about 120 nations showing up in the Iranian capital but they can take solace in the knowledge that many of the group’s members are equally apprehensive about Iran’s intentions.

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