In another time and place, next week’s summit of the Nonaligned Movement in Tehran would draw no more attention than deserved for a directionless alliance that has outlived its Cold War-era purpose.
But the rotating leadership of the 120-nation club, now united mostly by grievances over how bigger world powers wield their clout, is passing to Iran, providing a stage and possible legitimacy boost for what the United States and its allies view as a rogue regime bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon and annihilating Israel.
U.S. and Israeli leaders waged a belated and unsuccessful campaign for a boycott of the summit, warning that attendance could undermine the international community’s efforts to isolate Iran diplomatically and pressure it through sanctions to abandon any nuclear-bomb-building ambitions.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dealt a death blow to the efforts to organize a collective snub when he accepted Tehran’s invitation Wednesday. Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters at U.N. headquarters that Ban would use his visit to raise U.N. concerns about Iran’s nuclear developments, its role in the raging civil war in Syria, human rights issues and Iranian leaders’ threats against Israel.
INTERACTIVE: Who's who at the conference
Political analysts say Ban could hardly skip the meeting of such a huge part of the global constituency: India, Pakistan, South Africa, Egypt, Indonesia and dozens of states in Latin America and the Middle East are nonaligned members. That the membership also lists what Western countries consider pariah states -- North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe and host Iran, to name a few -- only makes Ban’s involvement the more necessary, the experts say, as it provides a rare opportunity to engage behind the scenes with often-reclusive or unapproachable leaders.
What worries Washington and some of its allies is the potential public relations boost Iran could get from the gathering. Hosting Ban, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and heads of state and government from at least four dozen other nations provides a high-profile platform for Iran to make its case for what Tehran claims is a purely civilian nuclear program.
"A lot of members of the Non-Aligned Movement see an inherent double standard in the nuclear nonproliferation regime and are unhappy with the failure of the nuclear powers, including the United States, to make significant movements toward nuclear disarmament," said Stewart Patrick, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' program on international institutions and global governance. Western powers have raised an international outcry over Iran's enrichment of uranium for fear it could be accelerated and used to make a nuclear weapon, but Israel has encountered little censure for its having acquired nuclear bombs, Patrick said.
Still, "it would be erroneous to see all of the nonaligned nations as moving in lock step with Iran," Patrick said. He pointed out that the widely divergent development and political agendas of the member states are no longer united by any single ideology or objective.
The Non-Aligned Movement emerged 51 years ago at the initiative of five developing-nation leaders seeking an alternative to joining rival alliances led by the United States and the Soviet Union. When the bipolar world ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago, the Non-Aligned Movement lost its reason to exist, said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University and co-director of the Hoover Institution's Iran Democracy Project.
Milani sees little chance that the Tehran summit will produce any significant gestures of support for the Iranian regime from among its disparate members. And whatever symbolic benefit Tehran derives from hosting a huge international confab will be expensive, short-lived and the result of an ill-conceived strategy on the part of U.S. officials, he said.
"The United States and the West never really had much leverage" to persuade allies to boycott the summit, said Milani, who taught law and political science at Tehran University before leaving his homeland in the late 1980s. "Iran was put in a win-win situation: If it got people like Ban Ki-moon and developing nations' presidents to come, it would be a win for them. If they had boycotted, the regime could say the West interfered to prevent them from coming."
Western states are also misguided in defining their policies on engagement with Iran in either-or terms, Milani said, instead of applying a strategy of negotiating in areas where there is potential for resolving differences.
"The problem is that some people want to portray engagement as legitimizing the regime. But Ronald Reagan engaged with the 'evil empire,' and his purpose wasn't to afford it legitimacy; it was to solve issues and help Soviet dissidents get some breathing space," Milani said.
Even if the nonaligned summit puts Iran in the world spotlight for a few days, he concluded, it will end with nothing more significant than group photos and Iranians plunged back into the daily misery of life under the outside world's withering sanctions.
Players in the Nonaligned Movement Summit
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Photo: Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, will represent host country Iran at next week's summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a forum that Western nations worry could undermine the diplomatic isolation of Iran over its nuclear programs. Khamenei drew Western ire last week when he said Israel would cease to exist, echoing threats made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at right in this official photo issued Thursday. Credit: Khamenei.ir