The U.S. and other Western countries are often trying to isolate Iran, but this week the country is in the international spotlight as it hosts a summit of 120 nonaligned nations.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Kim-moon decided to go, ignoring the advice of Israel and the U.S. He promised to deliver a tough message, but others are skeptical, arguing that his visit plays into the hands of the Iranians and to U.N. detractors in Washington.
While some see this summit as a diplomatic coup for Iran, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace doesn't think it will be a lasting success.
Countries that are part of the Nonaligned Movement have mostly cut back economic ties with Iran in order to remain on better terms with Washington, he says.
"They may show up in Tehran for a five-day summit of free food and nonalcoholic drink," Sadjadpour says. "But ultimately, I don't think this nonalignment summit will recruit anyone to Tehran's side."
But Tehran is trying to change its image in the world. The U.S. calls it a major exporter of terrorism — but Iran, which is currently in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions over its nuclear program, is portraying itself as the victim of international bullying.
Near the entrance of the summit, the Iranians have put on display the wreckage of several cars destroyed in bomb attacks that killed or wounded nuclear scientists.
And on the nuclear issue, Iran does have a sympathetic audience, says David Bosco, who teaches at American University's School of International Service.
"There's a diversity of viewpoints about Iran's particular program, but when Iran tries to frame this confrontation as ... this is unfair, this is powerful countries telling less powerful countries we can't have nuclear programs, that's something that resonates with a lot of nonaligned members," he says.
Bosco, who writes The Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine, says the Nonaligned Movement, with its roots in the Cold War era, has been a fixture on the international scene for decades, so he was not surprised that the U.N. secretary-general ignored the U.S. and decided to attend.
"The Nonaligned Movement represents 120 states and that is a very large constituency within the U.N. General Assembly," he says, "and the U.N. secretary-general responds ultimately to all U.N. member states, not just to the most powerful."
But some members of the U.S. Congress were furious with the decision. Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen describes the Nonaligned Movement as a tool for rogue regimes and says Ban's attendance is only encouraging "the despots."
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky — who is traveling with the secretary-general — says Ban believes in the power of dialogue and engagement. He says the U.N. chief conveyed international concerns about human rights, Syria and Iran's nuclear program in talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"[Ban] said that Iran needed to take concrete steps to address the concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency and prove to the world that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes," Nesirky says.
Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment is skeptical Ban's effort will pay off.
"He's issued some pretty strong statements about Iran's rhetoric vis a vis Israel, its support for the Syrian regime," Sadjadpour says about Ban. "I don't think this nonaligned summit is going to have any impact, though, on Iran's foreign policy behavior."
Take Syria, for instance. Many nonaligned members voted for a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, had hoped to use his visit to Iran — the first by an Egyptian head of state since the Iranian revolution — to encourage Iran to help resolve the crisis in Syria. But Sadjadpour says Iran is determined to stand by Assad.
"The graveyard of international diplomacy," he says, "is littered with failed overtures toward Iran."
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