U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon may have defied the wishes of Israel and the United States by traveling to Tehran to attend a Summit of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), the largest international conference in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which included a side meeting with Iran's president and supreme leader.
But they could hardly have wished for a more sympathetic message to be delivered directly to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a tough speech, that was not broadcast on Iranian state television, the U.N. chief singled out Iran for censure -- not Israel -- and on its own home court.
Ban dispensed with the carefully balanced language that secretaries general traditionally use in addressing the tough issues in the Middle East.
He made no mention of the struggle of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, a perennial topic of NAM debates. There was no talk of Israeli settlements. A reference to the Middle East Nuclear Free Zone -- which has often been cited as a cause for Israeli nuclear disarmament -- was used to prod Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
"There is no threat to global peace and harmony more serious than nuclear proliferation," he told the gathering, which included Ahmadinejad, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy. "Assuming the leadership of the NAM provides Iran with the opportunity to demonstrate that it can play a moderate and constructive role internationally. That includes responsible action on the nuclear program."
Ban urged Iran to fully comply with Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend its enrichment of uranium, step up cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and resume "constructive engagement" with the United States and other big powers seeking to negotiate a deal on Iran's nuclear program.
"From this platform -- as I have repeatedly stated around the world -- I strongly reject threats by any member state to destroy another or outrageous attempts to deny historical facts, such as the Holocaust," Ban added. "Claiming that another U.N. Member State, Israel, does not have the right to exist, or describing it in racist terms, is not only utterly wrong but undermines the very principles we have all pledged to uphold."
Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had pleaded with Ban not to attend the NAM summit, saying it would be used by the group's host, Iran, which replaced Egypt in the body's three-year chairmanship, to garner international legitimacy for its policies.
The main purpose of Ban's visit to Tehran was to search for a diplomatic opening to head off a possible confrontation between Israel and Iran. He urged both sides to dial down the rhetoric.
"I urge all parties to stop provocative and inflammatory threats," he said. "A war of words can quickly spiral into a war of violence. Bluster can so easily become bloodshed. Now is the time for all leaders to use their voices to lower, not raise tensions."
But the two sides were hardly in the mood to cool their heels.
Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, blasted U.S. dominance at the United Nations as a "flagrant form of dictatorship" and accused the West of arming the "usurper Zionist regime with nuclear weapons, which now pose a great threat to all of us."
In a statement today, Netanyahu replied that the "representatives of 120 countries heard a blood libel against the State of Israel and were silent. This silence must stop. Therefore, I will go to the UN General Assembly and, in a clear voice, tell the nations of the world the truth about Iran's terrorist regime, which constitutes the greatest threat to world peace."
Meanwhile, today's event was hardly turning into the diplomatic triumph that Tehran had hoped for -- and that the United States and Israel had feared. Both Ban and Morsy criticized the Syrian government, Tehran's closest regional ally, for its violent repression of pro-democracy forces in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world.
"The Syrian people are fighting with courage, looking for freedom and human dignity," Morsy said, prompting the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem to walk out in protest, according to a report in the New York Times. "I am here to announce our full and just support for a free, independent Syria that supports a transition into a democratic system and that respects the will of the Syrian people for freedom and equality," said Morsy.
As for Ban, he answered Syrian claims that foreign meddlers are behind the calls for democracy sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, saying "the Arab Spring was not imposed or exported. It did not arise from an external conflict or dispute between states. It came from within -- from people, who stood up for a better future."
But while Ban faulted Syria for starting the crisis by meeting "peaceful demonstrations" with "ruthless force" he said that any solution to the crisis will require restraint by all. "Those who provide arms to either side in Syria are contributing to its misery."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.