Gathering Hope in Tehran

The Nonaligned Movement’s much-heralded summit meeting next week in Tehran — featuring dozens of leaders from the developing world, including President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, as well as the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon — will elevate Iran as the movement’s new president for three years and enhance Tehran’s regional and international clout.

Tehran wants to seize this opportunity to neutralize Western-imposed isolation over its nuclear efforts and to defend its program, which has been consistently supported at past Nonaligned Movement summits as well as by Nonaligned countries in the International Atomic Energy Agency. Concurrent with the Tehran summit will be a new round of Iran-I.A.E.A. talks in Vienna that holds out the promise of greater nuclear transparency by Iran.

Unfortunately, the United States and a number of other Western countries have adopted a purely negative approach toward the Tehran summit, going even as far as urging Ban to boycott it since the host nation is in defiance of U.N. resolutions on the nuclear issue. But the secretary general must be lauded for exercising independent judgment in deciding to go to Tehran for the meeting. After all, there are 120 Nonaligned Movement member states in the U.N. General Assembly, and U.N. chiefs have regularly attended Nonaligned Movement summits.

Although the Tehran summit has been mocked as a “bacchanal of nonsense,” it is likely to have significant implications, above all for regional peace and stability. As a case in point, both Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan have stated their intention to meet on the summit’s sidelines to discuss bilateral issues. And though Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, may not participate, the crisis in Syria will be on the agenda and may culminate in a new Nonaligned Movement mediation push to complement the efforts of both the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

At a recent O.I.C. conference in Mecca, Morsi proposed forming a contact group on Syria comprising Iran, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This idea could now earn the blessing of the Nonaligned Movement and demonstrate how a new Middle East can chart its own destiny after the Arab Spring.

Morsi’s decision to go to Tehran indicates a thaw in Iran-Egypt relations and could be the harbinger of a diplomatic normalization between the two countries that could greatly enhance stability in the region.

With respect to the stalemated nuclear negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1” nations — the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members plus Germany — the Tehran summit is expected to produce some good. As the Nonaligned Movement underscores the extent of international support for Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, the United States and its allies will be pressed to drop their rigid insistence on a complete halt to Iran’s enrichment efforts and take a more nuanced approach to help break the deadlock on the issue.

The Western offer to provide nuclear reactor fuel and aviation parts in exchange for Tehran shutting down its high-grade enrichment work was called “ungenerous” by the International Crisis Group. It is clear that one-dimensional, coercive diplomacy on this matter will not yield a positive result — and that the Western diplomatic approach toward Iran needs to be much more flexible and prudent.

Practical steps could help a lot. China and Russia both have observer status at the Nonaligned Movement. So why have the United States and the European Union failed to join them by seeking observer status, too? The movement’s goals and aspirations should not be a bar to this; after all, the United States sends observers to O.I.C. meetings that habitually condemn Israel.

The time has come for the West to reconsider its hostility toward the Nonaligned Movement. A small olive branch could be extended if the United States and the European Union requested observer status. And the deep North-South divide could begin to close.

Kaveh Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team.

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