Showing a rare streak of independence, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today dismissed appeals by the United States and Israel to forgo a visit to Tehran to attend a summit of developing nations and to hold meetings with Iranian leaders.
After weeks of official silence, Ban's office announced that the U.N. chief will indeed visit Iran from Aug. 29-31 to participate in the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a gathering of 120 developing nations, and to meet with top Iranian officials to discuss the country's nuclear program, terrorism, human rights, and the civil war in Syria.
"The Secretary-General ... takes seriously his responsibility and that of the United Nations to pursue diplomatic engagement with all of its member states in the interest of peacefully addressing vital matters of peace and security," Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters today.
"With respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Secretary-General will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community on the issues for which cooperation and progress are urgent for both regional stability and the welfare of the Iranian people," he said.
Nesirky said Ban believes the summit will provide "an opportunity to work with the participating heads of state and government, including the host country, towards solutions on issues that are central to the global agenda including follow-up to the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, disarmament, conflict prevention, and support for countries in transition."
Today's announcement comes nearly two weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded with Ban to cancel the trip, saying it was a "major mistake" that would serve to legitimize a government committed to the elimination of Israel. "Mr. Secretary-General, your place is not in Tehran," Netanyahu told Ban.
The Obama administration and congressional leaders in both parties, including Senator Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, have backed Netanyahu's call for the U.N. chief to boycott the meeting. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also issued a personal appeal to Ban to stay away.
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, meanwhile, told reporters last week that convening the summit in Tehran "sends a very strange signal with regard to support for the international order" since Iran is "in violation of so many of its international obligations and posing a threat to neighbors." The United States has urged other leaders, including Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, who plans to attend, to boycott the event.
"We've made that point to participating countries. We've also made that point to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon," Nuland said. "Iran is going to try to manipulate this NAM summit and the attendees to advance its own agenda, and to obscure the fact that it is failing to live up to multiple obligations that it has to the U.N. Security Council, the IAEA, and other international bodies," she added this week. "So we frankly don't think that Iran is deserving of these high-level presences that are going there."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, added her voice to the debate, urging the administration to withhold funding for the United Nations in response. "The U.N. will legitimize Tehran through the Secretary-General's attendance of the upcoming Tehran summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, which the regime is exploiting as a propaganda victory," she said. "The U.S. must make clear that we will not keep footing the bill for a U.N. that stands with the likes of Iran instead of responsible nations like the U.S. and Israel."
The Non-Aligned Movement was established at the height of the Cold War to provide developing countries with a political counterweight in a world dominated by the American and Soviet superpowers. It clashed sharply with the West, which it frequently denounced as imperialistic. The movement, which includes two thirds of the U.N. membership, has lost much of its Cold War relevance, but it still serves as a powerful voting bloc at the United Nations. The Tehran summit will mark the beginning of Iran's three-year chairmanship of NAM.
On Tuesday, Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesman for Iran's U.N. mission, responded to the Washington Post's editorial board's characterization of the summit as a "bacchanal of nonsense," arguing that the paper had "unjustifiably smeared Iran."
"In light of its focus on multilateral cooperation, disarmament, sustainable world peace, rights of nations and horizontal relations defying hegemonic structures, the Non-Aligned Movement is a major cross-regional group in the United Nations, and U.N. leaders have always participated in its summits," he wrote in a letter to the Washington Post. "By bringing dozens of world leaders together, the summit promises to make significant contributions to the movement's lofty objectives."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.