The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has been called by some analysts a “relic of the cold war” days. It was theoretically conceived at Bandung in 1955 and formally launched at Belgrade in 1961. Sukarno, Nehru, Nasser, Nakruma and Tito were its founding fathers. It emerged as a group of developing countries that wanted to keep away from the superpower rivalries. As the name suggests, it is a movement and not an organisation. It has no permanent secretariat. Since non-alignment was the basic criterion for membership, both Iran and Pakistan did not qualify initially as they were members of the West-sponsored defence pacts.
The Tehran Summit assumed extra importance due to its timing and venue. It came at a time when Iran’s detractors thought it had been isolated. They were particularly disturbed by the presence, in Tehran, of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian President Mursi. Egypt was the outgoing Chairman of NAM, as the last summit was held in Sharm El-Sheikh in 2009. So, it was only correct that President Mursi came to Tehran to hand over charge. It also signalled that the new breed of leaders in the Middle East are more independent minded than their predecessors. Mursi is the first Egyptian head of state to visit Iran since 1979. The Iranians made it a point to take him to one of their nuclear facilities. Interestingly, they also put the wreckage of three cars, bombed to kill Iranian nuclear scientists, on display near the summit venue.
August was a month of political paradoxes for Iran. The August 3 UN General Assembly vote on Syria exposed growing Iranian isolation on this issue. And then it was further isolated at the Makkah OIC Summit where Syrian membership was suspended. The NAM Summit in Tehran, for which the Iranian leaders had worked hard for more than a year, took them partially out of international isolation.
Iran has faced tremendous internal and external challenges recently. It doused the flames of Green Movement, which challenged the fairness of President Ahmedinejad’s re-election, with an iron hand. International sanctions have hit its economy hard. The Iranian currency has nosedived and oil exports are down. The international atomic watchdog, IAEA, says Iranian authorities have not taken its experts to some of the facilities that it suspects Iran may be using for developing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader, called possession of nuclear weapons “a sin”, in his inaugural address to the summit. The Iranian nuclear programme has become a point of national prestige that the ruling clergy deftly exploits.
Pakistan became a member of NAM in 1979 when it was no longer a member of Seato and Cento. But the author of this idea was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Pakistan lobbied around the globe for support of its membership. I was posted at Ottawa in 1979 and in the absence of an Ambassador, was acting head of mission or what is called in diplomatic parlance charge d’affairs. I was instructed by our Foreign Office to proceed to Trinidad and Guyana, both covered by our mission in Canada, to solicit support.
The mere fact that so many world leaders converged on Tehran was a psychological boost for the Iranian leadership. There were few abstentions. Even Saudi Arabia sent its Deputy Foreign Minister, who is King Abdullah’s son, to lead its delegation in Tehran. Now that cannot be called low level representation. But President Mursi emerged as a real star for the hosts and their detractors. For the Iranians, his presence meant a big step towards a rapprochement, which is neither liked by the US nor Israel. Mursi’s courageous espousal of the Syrian opposition cause, in his speech, resulted in a walk out by the Syrian delegation.
A look at the final statement, read out by the Iranian President, shows that it is full of generalities. It lays emphasis on world peace as any final statement would. “We agreed to ensure human rights and human dignity to develop love affection and honesty,” says the final document. Now, who would disagree with those lofty aims? The summit expressed its support for the Palestinian cause. By the way, there is no mention of the Kashmir issue in the final statement and that is understandable. India is a founding member that enjoys considerable clout in this body.
The Zardari-Manmohan Singh meeting, that took place on the sidelines of this summit, was important. It signified the continuation of normalisation process in the subcontinent. But the Indians are in no hurry and want normalisation at their own pace and terms. The Indian Prime Minister was invited to visit Pakistan yet again and yet again he, like a good diplomat, did not say no. But he was non-committal on the timing of his visit. I do not think he will visit Pakistan till we address the Indian demands about LeT’s alleged complicity in the Mumbai terror attack, to their satisfaction.
NAM is a body that lacks mechanism to have its own decisions implemented. It has always strived to minimise polarisation in the world. Will the Iranian presidency of NAM, over the next three years, keep that objective in mind or exploit this new position for its domestic and international agendas, deserves close watch.
The writer is a former ambassador. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org