WASHINGTON — The decision last week by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to attend the 16th triennial event Non-Aligned Movement triennial summit in Tehran from Aug. 29-31 has set off alarm bells in Washington and Jerusalem.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, reiterated, after Ban’s announcement, “concerns that Iran is going to manipulate this opportunity and the attendees to try to deflect attention from its own failings.” U.S. Jewish groups that deal with the United Nations echoed that apprehension.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Aug. 12 urged Ban not to attend – and, in a rare diplomatic breach, made the plea public.
“Even if it is not your intention, your visit will grant legitimacy to a regime that is the greatest threat to world peace and security,” Netanyahu told Ban in the phone call, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Israel and the West are locked in a diplomatic struggle with Iran to force the Islamic Republic to make more transparent a nuclear program it insists is peaceful but that western intelligence agencies say is intended to produce a bomb.
The non-aligned summit sharpens tensions between Israel and western nations over whether diplomacy and sanctions have been played out. Netanyahu believes they have and is pressing the Obama administration to make more specific the military consequences should Iran not comply. Obama administration officials are in turn pressing Israel to stand down from rhetoric that suggests an Israeli strike is imminent.
The Non-Aligned Movement is a 1960s relic that once brought together nations seeking to resist being co-opted by the United States or the Soviet Union. With the summit, Iran assumes presidency of the movement. Thirty leaders of about 120 member nations plan to attend the 16th triennial summit.
“It’s a lot of posturing and photo-ops,” said Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, a think-tank that often consults with the U.S. government. “But the fact that Iran is hosting the summit and the fact that the UN secretary general is going and especially that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is showing up are good public relations moves.
“Iran has in recent months tried to boost relationships with Egypt, but Egyptians have been relatively standoffish. They haven’t embraced Iran,” Nader added.
Alireza Miryousefi, the Iranian envoy to the UN, wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to the Washington Post that in “light of its focus on multilateral co-operation… sustainable world peace… and horizontal relations defying hegemonic structures, the [movement] is a major cross-regional group in the United Nations, and UN leaders have always participated in its summits…”
It is precisely the exploitation of such symbolism that concerns Jewish groups, said Michael Salberg, the director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
“Symbols matter, and when the symbol is represented by the secretary general of the United Nations, it’s a neon light – and that makes it all the more troubling at a difficult time,” Salberg said.
The concern, said David Harris, the director of the American Jewish Committee, is that the “gathering grants legitimacy to the Iranian leadership’s unvarnished and incessant antisemitism.”
State Department spokesperson Nuland said, “We hope that those who have chosen to attend, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, will make very strong points to those Iranians that they meet about their international obligations. For them to begin to come clean on their nuclear program and to solve this particular issue diplomatically.”
Ban suggested in his announcement that he got the message. “With respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the secretary general will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community…” it said. “These include Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria.”
Salberg said such caveats paled next to the symbolism of Ban’s participation. “It says, you can act with impunity, you can say what you want, and I’m still going to come, the embodiment of the international community,” he said.