Beyond the Post-NAM Spin

The end of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran has been an occasion for pundits on all sides to engage in post-game spin. In Iran, the spin began right in the middle of the summit when Iranian television mistranslated — read lied about — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s words to present his position on Syria as not that different from Iran’s. Once the summit was over Hossein Shariatmadari of Kayhan, whose editorials usually give a lesson to hardliners regarding how to frame an argument, didn’t repeat the lie regarding Syria. But he put new words in Morsi’s mouth and attempted to convince his readers that Morsi’s stance regarding Syria so contradict his positions on Palestine, Egypt’s ability to be a “strategic ally” to Iran, and “the necessity to combat Israel and support the resistance axis”, that Morsi will soon change his mind. “In the Tehran summit, Mr. Morsi announced Egypt’s new identity and this new announced identity is not in line with support for the opposition in Syria [particularly] alongside America, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. For sure, Morsi’s position will change in the future,” Shariatmadari ended his column confidently.

Outside Iran, the urge to frame the summit has taken a different form. Iran’s relationship to the West is after all a win-or-lose game not only in the current Iranian leadership’s mind. So Morsi’s support for the Syrian opposition, Ban Ki-moon’s criticism of Iran’s non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear program, and its human records, are interpreted as a defeating blow to Iran’s efforts to showcase itself as a country that it is not isolated. Even though Morsi had already called for Syrian regime change at the meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah two weeks earlier (where Iran cast the only vote against Syria’s expulsion), somehow his stating of an already stated position in support of Syria’s opposition — with no mention of Iranian, Russian, or Chinese support for Bashar Assad — turns into the “slamming” of Iran and even more ambitiously, a diplomatic disaster as far as the whole summit goes, thereby underlining Iran’s isolation.

What few are willing to acknowledge is that post-event spin is usually geared towards different audiences. Even more likely is the fact that such spin is geared towards the already converted. Those expecting failure got one. Those hoping for a statement regarding Iran’s non-isolation also received a decent amount from global participants and more importantly, from their point of view, a fairly strong statement of support by NAM for Iran’s nuclear program.

For those of us less interested in keeping score, the summit nevertheless provided a few interesting highlights and/or revealing points regarding Iran’s external relations and domestic politics. Let me mention three.

1. Given Iran’s geographic location and resources, it is simply not good business for many countries in the neighborhood to isolate Iran. And at least from the looks of things, the sanctions regime imposed by the West is being perceived as an opportunity by some countries. Nothing illustrates this better than Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Tehran. Tellingly, he and the large contingent who came with him were met at the airport by Iran’s Economy Minister, Shamseddin Hosseini. And before embarking on his 4-day visit, his staff made clearthat bilateral economic relations were on his mind. 

Iran and India currently have about $15 billion worth of trade with each other but the balance is heavily in favor of Iran to the tune of more than 4 to 1 and that has turned into a real issue because of sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union on financial transactions between the two countries. Getting paid in Rupees for 45 percent of its exports to India has been a partial solution but India is hoping to increase its export of agricultural goods as well as machinery as another alternative. In other words, both countries continue to work hard to find ways to get around sanctions because it’s worth it. This does not mean that sanctions are not bad for Iran or that they are not constraining Iran’s optimal use of its resources. The current opportunity costs of the sanctions regime are huge for Iran. But Iran’s location and resources are countervailing forces that cannot be ignored. Furthermore, there are quite a few countries that see the sanctions regime as an opportunity. This dynamic will likely continue to inspire US efforts to openly attempt to impose new ways of restricting Iran’s international trade while other countries openly collude with Iran to find ways to get around those attempts.

2. International engagement is good for Iran. As far as I am concerned, the most important lesson of Ban and Morsi’s visit lies in the value of engaging Iran directly. Many of those who are now touting Ban’s and Morsi’s words of wisdom in Tehran should remind themselves that they tried hard to prevent these folks from going there. That their words and actions have created a conversation in Iran is a good thing made possible by the Iranian desire not to appear, nor be, isolated.  Ban in no uncertain terms identified his purpose in his speech at the Foreign Ministry’s School of International Relations, “to highlight the cost of Iran’s current trajectory, both at home and in the international arena.” He also made the case that ?Any country at odds with the international community is one that denies itself much-needed investment and finds itself isolated from the thrust of common progress.” Ban’s skillful focus on the basic contradiction in Iran’s foreign policy — wanting to be a respected member of the international community while loudly and unskillfully challenging some of the established codes of conduct of that same international community — is a lesson for all.

3. The NAM summit was a showcase for the outside world with really no domestic implications, but it did tell us something about the current shape of Iranian politics. It told us that the Leader Ayatollah Khamenei now sees himself in charge of even implementing Iran’s foreign policy and not just setting the “general direction of the country” and letting the president engage in the task of executing these general directives as delineated by the Islamic Republic’s Constitution.

Even the appearances were awkward. Khamenei entered the summit room first followed by former president and current chair of the Expediency Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is also an unelected official. Iran’s current president followed next and was mostly treated as a non-person by the Iranian media. Comparing this to the last major international meeting in Iran, which was the meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in December 1997, is telling. Fresh from being popularly elected, Mohammad Khatami took charge of the meeting and Khamenei had almost no presence. Furthermore, as a popularly elected president, Khatami had no need for underlings to shower him with accolades regarding how incredibly insightful and important he is. There was no need to have someone like former foreign minister and current senior advisor Ali Akbar Velayati to lie to the Iranian audience that Ban, in a private meeting with Khamenei, identified him not only as the leader of Iran but also as “the leader of the Islamic world.” How incredibly ironic that the man who routinely speaks in the name of the inalienable rights of the Iranian people in the face of Western hostility now has to rely on ingratiating promoters who try to elevate his international role with the hope of enhancing his domestic standing.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.