Non-aligned bust

(From L to R) Iranian Judiciary chief Javad Larijani, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's former president Akbar Hashemi and the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi attend the opening session of the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on August 30, 2012. (AFP PHOTO / ISNA / AMIR KHOLOUSI)

This week’s gathering of non-aligned states in Iran provides an example of the difference between hype and reality. Some people might say such an event provides an international diplomatic forum and public relations bonanza for Tehran, but in the end, there is the matter of performance.

For most people around the world, the proceedings of the Non-Aligned Movement are not worth spending much time on. Various leaders deliver speeches; naturally, many people would prefer to hear only the headlines and a few key points. Some specialists and interested parties might enjoy listening to each and every speech or statement by international figures gathered in Iran, but even those in the meeting hall appeared to be tuning out at times, if not dipping into outright slumber.

This isn’t surprising, since for the most part, the same litany of anti-American rhetoric has been trotted out, with the emphasis on how oppressive Washington is on the world stage. But some of the faces at the NAM summit have been there time and time again, for decades, meaning that this criticism is undercut. Having someone like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as a member of long standing isn’t very helpful, and no NAM summit has ever done anything concrete to contribute to making people’s lives better in Zimbabwe, for example.

With this hypocrisy and glaring lack of achievements under its belt, perhaps the NAM officials shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of enthusiasm generated by their speech-making.

However, this year a long-lost friend – Egypt – showed up to make things interesting.

People paid attention when President Mohammad Mursi took the podium and delivered a strongly worded message to the Syrian regime. While some speeches offered nothing, this one was significant – it earned the immediate displeasure of those concerned, as the Syrian delegation walked out, and generated immediate embarrassment for the hosts, who had allowed such a statement to be made on the territory of the country that has stood most closely with Damascus in its war against the Syrian people. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talked about there being agreement between Tehran and other countries such as Egypt, but this is a case of spin that convinces no one.

In short, the summit had three things to offer.

On Palestine, people repeated the same old rhetoric, without offering any meaningful initiatives. But this salvo was offset by Ban Ki-moon, who fiercely attacked Iran’s position on the Holocaust.

On Syria, the differences among various states have been no secret to those following the issue. But the summit highlighted them, and gave Egypt’s now-clear point of view a prominent forum.

On Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran repeated its old stance, namely that it’s all about the pursuit of nuclear technology for non-military purposes.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials who believed that the event was going to do them some good, even as public relations, should take note of three things.

While they were busy welcoming visiting dignitaries, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran was busy hiding evidence of its nuclear program. The IAEA is also apparently preparing a report on how Tehran is expanding its nuclear work. And finally, Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he will use the forum of the U.N. next month to focus on Iran’s nuclear activities.

Iranian officials might be proud to have hosted the NAM summit, but the simple fact is that it constituted a failed exercise.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 31, 2012, on page 7.




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