//CGCS Media Wire & The Iran Media Program present an in depth analysis of Iran’s hosting of the 2012 Non-Aligned Movement.
//Crossposted with permission from the Iran Media Program
Was the Non- Aligned Summit a Success for Iran?
The 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) took place in Tehran, Iran from 26 to 31 August 2012. As Iran undertook NAM’s rotating chairmanship for the next three years, their intentions were manifest throughout the summit. Analysts conjecture that NAM works to promote the global interests of its members, and Iran endeavored to just this. Throughout these six days Iran used its leadership position to assert its interests and strength nationally, regionally, and globally. Iran looked towards a diplomatic triumph in the rare presence of heads of state (for the first time after 33 years) against the western-led effort of economic sanctions and political isolation for their nuclear development. This article discusses some of the goals Iran pursued in hosting the summit and whether it was successful in achieving them.
NAM was founded in 1961 during the Cold War with the purpose of finding a middle ground for developing countries independent of the western and eastern blocs. Iran joined the movement after the Islamic revolution, when the country adopted policies against both Western capitalism and Soviet communism.
Following the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union, NAM redefined its goals. They focused on issues related globalization, international trade and investment, as well as debt reduction for developing countries and fighting international crime. As of 2012, NAM has 120 members, mostly from the global south.
Iran, Strong and Confident
At the domestic level, the Iranian government attempted to use the summit to show its capabilities in hosting and managing a large-scale international event. By doing so, the government hoped to project confidence and boost morale at a time when many Iranians are increasingly suffering from economic hardship and are worried about the looming threat of an Israeli (or perhaps US) attack. The summit aspired to provide the government with a platform to convince its citizens that, despite this hardship, the administration was still in control and could assemble and host hundreds of heads of state and high-level delegations. Prior to and during the summit, Iranian officials emphasized state capabilities in securing and preparing the capital for the event.
During the summit, while most public offices were shut, newspapers were ordered to remain open and continue their publications. However, the authorities banned the papers from discussing issues that undermined the full authority of the government, i.e. discussing issues related to political factions and disagreement in the leadership. Furthermore, officials instructed members of the media not to report news that would bring insecurity to Tehran, i.e. bad weather, natural disasters, energy cuts, or crime. The government was committed to present a sense of unity and stability to the capital.
There were no major incidents or security threats during the event and the organization of the summit proceeded smoothly. The authorities have claimed success in this regard. However, there were questions about why the government spent US$600 million for the summit while high unemployment and economic difficulties persist. President Ahmadinejad’s response to criticism about the costs of the summit was that “a nation that wants to be a global leader must be ready to pay for it.” Given the strict media censorship and the absence of independent public opinion polls, it is hard to assess whether hosting the summit increased the population’s confidence in the government.
The issue of Syria
The summit also provided the Iranian government with an opportunity to mobilize support for the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. However, in his speech, the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi criticized the Syrian regime and noted that President Bashar al-Assad had lost his credibility. Instead of rallying support for Assad, which Iranian officials perhaps wished for, President Mosri called for solidarity with the rebels fighting the “oppressive regime.” President Morsi further emphasized that supporting the opposition was both a political necessity and a moral obligation. The Syrian delegation walked out of the meeting in reaction to President Morsi’s remarks. Such open criticism of the Syrian regime was not what Iranian officials wanted to see at an international summit hosted in Iran. Finally, there was no statement of support for the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in the final statement of the 16th NAM summit.
The Nuclear Program
Iranian officials also used the summit as an opportunity to once again emphasize that their nuclear program was solely for peaceful purposes. In his opening remarks, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, denied pursuing nuclear weapons but noted that Iran was “determined to continue its efforts to make nuclear energy.” During the summit, the President of Mongolia, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, visited the main uranium enrichment plant in the central town of Natanz. Following his visit, Elbegdorj endorsed Iran’s claim that its program was intended for peaceful use. However, during the summit, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Iran to cooperate with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in order to prove its nuclear program was peaceful. In addition, two weeks after the summit, ten out of fourteen NAM members involved with IAEA sent a new resolution rebuking Iran for defying demands to curb uranium enrichment and failing to clarify concerns about its nuclear program. Cuba is the only country that voted against this resolution and Egypt, Tunisia, and Ecuador abstained. This is perhaps not a very satisfying result for the Iranian government that was hoping to gain the support of NAM countries for its nuclear enrichment program.
Improving Iran’s Image Internationally
In recent years, Iran has come under extreme criticism by western powers for its nuclear program. Subsequently, the US and its allies have launched extensive sanctions and have taken other political measures to weaken and isolate Iran at the international level. The summit endeavored to provide Iran with an opportunity to demonstrate that it was not isolated, and was in fact, still a significant international player.
According to Iranian officials, the participation of delegates such as India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in an event hosted by Iran, was a testament of Iran’s international significance. In effect the US and its allies had failed to weaken and isolate Iran. As such, the summit was a “major” success for Iran’s image globally. However, censoring and altering President Morsi’s speech about Syria and what followed after perhaps damaged the image that Iran wanted to portray. Iranian state media changed the word Syria to Bahrain when translating and broadcasting President Morsi’s criticism of the Syrian regime. Bahrain, Egypt, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf region officially protested Iran’s action. Iranian officials responded that the incident was an unintentional mistake in translation. Wherever the truth lies, altering president Morsi’s remarks negatively effected Iran’s reputation both regionally and internationally.
With increasing sanctions and the economic challenges that Iran is facing, the NAM Summit was also an opportunity for Iran to find new business partners and make trade deals. Rostam Ghasemi, Iran’s Minister of Petroleum stated that Iran negotiated trade deals with some oil importing countries that attended the summit. Ghasemi also noted that NAM countries were handling about 50 percent of oil transactions in the world, and Iran had high hopes to take advantage of this opportunity to increase its oil export. However, regardless of Mr. Ghasemi’s remarks, there is no evidence of new contracts being signed between Iran and NAM countries. Since the imposition of new sanctions, several NAM members, including South Africa, Kenya, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Tanzania, that previously imported oil from Iran have stopped or reduced their import in line with sanctions imposed by the US and its European allies. So far, there has been no news about new trade deals between Iran and NAM members that were negotiated during the summit.
Iranian officials have referred to the summit as “the most important” political event in the 33-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. For them the summit was a success since it allowed them to demonstrate confidence domestically, and to defy isolation internationally. However, it seems that they were not successful in using the summit to rally support for the Iranian nuclear program or to mobilize support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Most significantly, with the case of altering President Morsi’s speech, the summit marked a rare moment where the international community experienced first hand and opposed violations of the individual right to freedom of speech in Iran. As such, despite the posturing Iranian officials have made regarding the success of the summit, their achievements fell short of their intended goals.