This week, Iran will be more than the country struggling under the weight of U.N. sanctions, imposed for its controversial nuclear program. It will be more than a potential target for Israeli airstrikes. It will be something other than the home of a theocratic government routinely pilloried by leading human rights groups. On Sunday, Iran became host to the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), heralding the start of a three-year turn for Tehran at the group's helm.
Dozens of world leaders and foreign ministers, reportedly including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, India's Prime Pinister Manmohan Singh, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez are descending on the Islamic Republic for the summit. Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, subject of an International Criminal Court warrant, will also attend -- and it's a fair bet that he won't be dragged from Tehran in handcuffs. North Korea is sending its nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, instead of new leader Kim Jong Un. In all, as many as 7,000 delegates are expected.
The spectacle of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad playing host to such a major international gathering has caused heartburn in Western capitals. The United States publicly discouraged the U.N.'s Ban from attending and none too subtly urged others to stay away. "[W]e frankly don't think that Iran is deserving of these high-level presences that are going there," said a U.S. State Department spokesperson.
There is no doubt that Iran's leadership will seek to deflect international pressure and to showcase the diplomatic support it still enjoys in some parts of the world. The Iranian authorities have announced a tour of scientific and technical sites designed to simultaneously demonstrate Iran's scientific prowess and its peaceful intentions. The regime will have a largely sympathetic audience. Most states in the NAM are skeptical of what they see as a double standard that permits only certain powers to maintain nuclear arsenals. The last NAM summit document chastised the current nuclear-armed states for a "lack of progress ... to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals." In 2006, the movement approved a statement lauding Iran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and warning against any military strikes on peaceful nuclear facilities.
This year, other issues on the agenda will likely include equitable economic development, the reform of major international organizations, and the Israel-Palestine conflict -- a perennial topic at NAM meetings. It's also certain that the assembled leaders will discuss Syria, whose regime Tehran strongly backs. Russia's envoy to the NAM reportedly expressed hope that summit decisions "will lead to the development of a political solution to the Syrian crisis."
That seems highly unlikely, and the subject will be a tricky one for the hosts. Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem will attend the summit -- but as Reuters's Marcus George points out, a majority of NAM members have already voted to condemn the Syrian regime at the United Nations.