Published August 28, 2012
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iranian officials have made no secret about their massive ambitions for this week's nonaligned nations' gathering, with a guest list including leaders such as Egypt's president and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Tehran seeks to assert itself on a host of issues before the meetings close Friday: Syria's civil war, sidestepping Western sanctions, promoting its nuclear narrative and seeking to ease long-standing Middle East friction with rivals in Cairo and the Gulf. Yet it is likely to face substantial pushback.
While the country's leaders see the weeklong gathering of the 120-nation Nonaligned Movement as a major step toward validating Iran as a rising power, it also could highlight its limits and liabilities in the region and further afield.
"Iran sees itself as a cornerstone of nations trying to break free of what they call Western dominance," said Bruno Tertrais, an Iranian affairs analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "This is good for domestic politics, but Iran confronts some sharp realities outside its borders.'"
High among them these days is Tehran's close bonds with Bashar Assad's regime in Syria — even as it has been abandoned by nearly every other Mideast nation and the West.
Tehran's unwavering support for Assad could, in fact, ultimately overshadow the landmark visit by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi later this week.
Morsi would be first Egyptian leader to travel to Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Iran broke ties with Cairo for its peace pact with Israel. Iran's disdain for the Egyptian leadership was so great that a street in Tehran was named after the ringleader of the assassination team that gunned down President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Morsi's visit — a four-hour stop Thursday en route from China — is part of a push by the new president to redefine his country's international relations away from the era of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, a close Washington ally. The Islamist Morsi seeks "a more active" foreign policy "based on more balanced relations," his spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters this week.
"We are not in competition with anyone, we don't have rivalries. We base our relations on national interests," Ali said.
Egypt hardly seems to be rushing into Iran's arms, however. Ali underlined that Morsi was visiting solely for the nonaligned summit and would not be holding bilateral talks with the Iranians. That may be in part an attempt to reassure Saudi Arabia, Iran's top Gulf rival. Saudi Arabia has long been an opponent of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and has been suspicious of his rise to power.
But Morsi also is seeking to spearhead a new peace initiative for Syria's escalating civil war. Earlier this month, he included Iran in a proposed four-nation contact group with Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. His upcoming talks in Tehran on Syria, however, have already been dismissed by Syrian rebels as a dead end because of Iran's inclusion.
Abdelbaset Sieda, head of the rebel Syrian National Council, said Iran was "part of the problem and not part of the solution ... and cannot possibly be impartial in any initiative." Rebels also hold 48 Iranian men taken captive earlier this month near Damascus.
Hamid Reza Shoukouhi, editor of Iran's independent Mardomsalari newspaper, believes that while Egypt and Iran could make some headway toward better ties, issues such as Syria show serious divides. "Iran's main policies will not change in short term," he said.
Still, Tehran is making every effort to portray the gathering as a pivotal moment in its global aspirations.
The view is not unfounded. In terms of membership, the bloc is second only to the U.N. General Assembly and includes emerging economic powerhouses such as India, while giants China and Brazil hold observer status in the group.
But Iran — which took over the bloc's rotating presidency on Tuesday — seeks to reinvent what some see as a Cold War relic as a forum to limit the West's reach. Its foreign minister opened the meetings Sunday with a call to dilute the power of the U.N. Security Council. Other expected talking points include proposals to replace the U.S. dollar and euro with local currencies in transactions between member states.
Iran also has boasted about the U.N. secretary-general's decision to address the meeting later this week. But pride could turn into embarrassment if Ban uses his appearance as a platform to criticize Tehran over its crackdowns on political dissent — including the house arrests of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi — or push for more access to its nuclear sites for U.N. inspectors.
Already on Tuesday, a U.N. spokesman in New York said Ban would bring up human rights and concerns over the nuclear program on the sidelines of the gathering. "It's clear that when he goes there he will reiterate his concern that the overall human rights situation in Iran remains critical," Farhan Haq told reporters.
The West fears Iran's uranium enrichment program could eventually produce atomic weapons. Iran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical applications. As part of the current meetings, Iran has proposed tours of nuclear sites for diplomats in an apparent effort to win over their support.
Iran has also put its first generation of enrichment centrifuges on display along with a domestically produced satellite and nano-technology devices — with promises to share expertise with fellow nonaligned states.
Last week, diplomats said the U.N. nuclear agency was forming a special team of weapons experts and others to focus exclusively on the country. The agency also is pressing for wider inspections of the Parchin military base southeast of Tehran to investigate suspicions that explosives tests had been carried out there that could be related to nuclear weapons triggers.
An open letter to Ban from Reza Pahlavi, son of Iran's late former ruler deposed in the Islamic Revolution, urged the U.N. chief to draw attention to the "dire condition of the thousands of political prisoners languishing" in Iranian custody.
"They will be left with very little hope if the regime is given a pass by the international community, and not held accountable by a world body as important as the United Nations," he said in the letter.
Already, however, the gathering has brought Iran some apparent success.
Efforts for greater economic ties with Pakistan and India — both key markets for Iranian oil and gas — are moving along smoothly, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expected to arrive on Tuesday on the first such visit by an Indian premier in more than a decade.
India is Iran's No. 2 oil consumer after China, and is critical to Tehran's efforts to offset the economic blow made by sanctions that closed off European oil markets. Iran's core strategy now is to keep the oil flowing to Asia despite U.S. efforts to hinder the trade.
Sadegh Zibakalam, a political affairs professor at Tehran University, said that while the Nonaligned Movement may help Iran in specific cases like India, the goal of a unified bloc standing up to the West would be elusive.
"It gives a chance for Iran's diplomatic apparatus to try to boost ties," he said. "But efforts to revive the group are useless. With more than 100 nations ... many of its members have very different viewpoints."
Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, Lee Keath in Cairo and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.