The timing could not have been better: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had just given the leaders of Iran, host of the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a severe “scolding” on their failure to comply with UN resolutions on the Iranian nuclear program and to reach a satisfactory arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency on access by its inspectors to Iranian nuclear sites.
For good measure, he advised them to do something about their country’s dismal track record on human rights.
He had also robustly upbraided the Iranian leaders for denying Israel’s right to exist and dismissing the Holocaust — the murder of six million Jews by Hitler’s Nazi Germany — as a figment of the Western world’s imagination. To both Iran and Israel, he said in effect: tone down your rhetoric you silly hotheads.
Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi called on NAM members to support the Syrian uprising against strongman Bashir al-Assad, whose most fervent protector is Iran. Morsi quickly took off after delivering the broadside.
That was when the IAEA released its latest finding that Iran had doubled its nuclear program by installing some 1,000 new centrifuges at one of its underground nuclear facilities. The agency also reported that its inspectors were still denied access to facilities in a military base near Tehran. The report was promptly followed by predictable warnings from the White House in the United States.
Iran gave back as good as it got. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fulminated against “Zionist wolves,” the dictatorship of the UN Security Council, the hypocrisy of the United States and the rest of the West. When these entities talked of human rights, he said, they meant their vested interests, and when they talked of democracy they meant military intervention.
It may be that the NAM has become a battleground in a war of words between Iran and its enemies. The NAM has not improved much since Indonesia chaired it in 1992, when it astounded observers by boldly seeking dialogue with the developed world on the sensitive issue of the debt crisis. That initiative eventually led to the debt “forgiveness” of not a few highly indebted poor countries.
These days you hear thoughtful observers wonder aloud if the movement is still relevant. One has actually said that the NAM completely lost its relevance in the thaw of the Cold War.
But I hear rumors of hope. Listen to the soft-spoken words of Khamenei instead of his harsh rhetoric and you hear its whisper. The world, he says, is in transition to a new multilateral order that the NAM can help bring about. Quoting Indonesia’s President Sukarno at the Bandung Conference in 1955, Khamenei says that the NAM can play that role “because it is not a geographical, racial or religious unity but rather a unity of needs.”
You don’t see that transition on the radar of current events reportage but perhaps you or your children will read about it when the history of the century is written in big strokes. Khamenei’s vision of the NAM’s new role dovetails with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s call on the movement to “strengthen multilateral democracy and make use of the UN to settle disputes.”
And hope grows when Iran’s foreign minister confides to Time magazine that in negotiating with the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and the United States) on its nuclear program, Iran is willing “to be a little patient and be cautious in our rhetoric and reactions and keep our limits.” Iran, he says, recognizes although it sees no justification for the worries of the P5+1. Both sides, he says, are working on mechanisms to remove those worries.
Underneath the turmoil of battling rhetoric, there is a gentler undercurrent. I hope that someday it comes to the surface and prevails.