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The Talkfest in Tehran

Should Americans really worry about the Non-Aligned Movement, a relic of the Cold War whose purpose is no longer clear?

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.

The impact of the Tehran summit on most major issues will likely be minimal, but it will nevertheless be an important moment for the NAM itself. The organization has endured a several decades-long identity crisis: It was, after all, a movement born early in the Cold War to provide diplomatic shelter and support for states not clearly identified with either the United States or the Soviet Union. The 1955 Bandung summit document, which, among other things, urged participants not to serve the "particular interests of any of the big powers," was the movement's ideological breakthrough. The 1961 Belgrade summit represented its formal coming-out party. The prime movers of that era were giants from large and populous non-Western states: India's Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesia's Sukarno, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Yugoslavia's Josef Broz Tito.

As decolonization speeded up in the 1960s, the NAM became a sprawling collection of diverse states with heavy representation from Africa and Asia. Particularly at the United Nations, it had a significant diplomatic impact. The movement was instrumental in the 1965 expansion of the U.N. Security Council to 15 members, which gave its members more weight in that body. In the early 1970s, the NAM marshaled support for a "New International Economic Order," which emphasized the obligation of former colonial powers to redistribute wealth to the global south. Along the way, Washington came to see the NAM as a mostly hostile movement that, for all its protestations of independence, tended to line up with Moscow. Cuba's active role in the organization -- Havana hosted the 1979 summit -- only intensified U.S. skepticism.

The end of the Cold War -- and the rigid diplomatic alignments against which the NAM supposedly militated -- posed an existential challenge for the movement. At its 1992 summit in Jakarta, key players in the NAM claimed that the end of the Cold War vindicated their worldview, but they also recognized that the organization needed to generate a new sense of purpose. Indonesia's Suharto warned that NAM "cannot afford to be passive" in the face of new challenges.

He need not have worried. Multilateral organizations often endure even when their initial purpose has expired (witness NATO's post-Cold War activism). Right on cue, the NAM found its new raison d'être in the outsized economic, military, and diplomatic power of the West that persisted throughout the 1990s. In many respects, the movement shifted from being a voice for Cold War neutrality to serving as a rhetorical bulwark against what many members saw as U.S. hegemony and interventionism.

NAM members condemned U.S. airstrikes against Iraq in the late 1990s and opposed the 2003 invasion. In 2004, South Africa's deputy foreign minister exhorted a NAM gathering to "heighten awareness of the threats to multilateralism through the imposition of unilateralism and it ought to galvanize us into concrete courses of action."

Given the diversity of its membership, the NAM's pronouncements tend to be stem-winders that give everyone something; the last summit document totaled more than 100 pages. But a persistent and distinct worldview permeates the verbiage: NAM members remain skeptical of the leading Western powers, watchful for all forms of incipient neocolonialism and racism, mostly hostile to Israel's policies, and animated by the vast gulf between the world's rich and poor.

This week's summit in Tehran poses distinct tactical challenges for the movement. Not only does Syria badly divide its members, but some Western diplomats have speculated that moderate states won't be pleased about being used as a foil in Tehran's nuclear struggle with the West. But a deeper question is whether even Nonalignment 2.0 makes sense in a world where many see U.S. and European power in decline relative to that of India, South Africa, and China (a NAM observer state). In small but notable ways, these states have acquired new standing and weight in bodies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The United States has even backed India's bid for a permanent Security Council seat.

The NAM has often claimed to speak for the world's weak and marginalized. But it's increasingly hard to put the likes of India and Indonesia in that category. What happens when some of the NAM's most important players become part of the global establishment?

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

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