TEHRAN -- United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon veered off Iran's preferred script Wednesday, questioning the nation's human rights record at a high-profile international gathering that Iran views as a validation of its global standing.
Ban, seated next to Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, apparently stunned his hosts at a meeting of so-called non-aligned nations when he told a news conference that the U.N. had “serious concerns” about human rights in Iran, the Associated Press reported.
“We have discussed how United Nations can work together with Iran to improve the human rights situation in Iran,” Ban said, according to the Associated Press, which said Larijani “frowned” at the apparently unexpected comments. “We have our serious concerns on the human rights abuses and violations in this country.”
The official Iranian press did not appear to mention Ban’s critical remarks. Earlier, the Iranian media reported extensively on Ban's arrival and his comments that Tehran had “a crucial, important role to play in the region.”
Social media, however, was quickly abuzz with Ban's explicit criticism of the status of human rights in the Islamic Republic.
Ban’s presence here at the non-aligned conference -- in which more than 100 nations are expected to participate -- has been hyped in the official media as indicative of the failure of U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran as a rogue state and sponsor of terrorism. Ban decided to come to Tehran despite a personal plea from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he stay away.
Some Iranian dissident groups had urged Ban to confront Iranian leaders on human rights issues three years after disputed national elections resulted in massive protests and ultimately returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. Critics alleged that the results were rigged. A pair of opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.
The conference is being held under tight security, and officials have warned dissenters not to contemplate public protests that might "embarrass" the nation's leadership.
Ban met Wednesday with both Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There was no word on what was discussed.
Whether Ban will broach other controversial topics — such as Iran’s disputed nuclear program — remained to be seen.
-- Ramin Mostaghim and Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut
Photo: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, is greeted by Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili for a meeting Wednesday in his Tehran office. Credit: Abolfazi Nesaei / International Iran Photo Agency