When Iran hosts a five-day summit of the Nonaligned Movement this week, it will be doing more than just staging its largest international event in more than a decade. It will be taking steps to shed its image as a global pariah.
Under the banner of "lasting peace through joint global governance," more than 40 heads of state and hundreds of high-level diplomats have descended on Tehran for the August 26-31 NAM summit
. The movement was forged during the Cold War to unite countries that opted to remain independent of the prevailing power blocs. Today, NAM has 120 members, who combine to form the biggest voting bloc in the United Nations.
Iran hopes to use the summit as a platform to hone its diplomatic image, while also trying to gain much-needed support to counter Western pressure over its controversial nuclear program.
Tehran is pulling out all the stops for the event, embarking on a major cleanup and even giving city residents a five-day holiday for the summit's duration. A number of VIPs are on the invite list, although it is unclear if some of the heavy hitters will come, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. At least one won't be in attendance -- North Korea said it will send its ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, and not leader Kim Jong Un.
Hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami, a member of Iran's Assembly of Experts, has set the bar of expectations high, saying success in hosting the summit would be an achievement for the Islamic establishment.
Already, the reported participation of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi is being portrayed as a victory. Iran will take over NAM's rotating chairmanship from Egypt during the summit, and Tehran sent a vice president to Cairo to personally extend an invitation for Morsi to attend. If he does, it would be the first visit by an Egyptian head of state to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
UN Chief To Attend
Another victory for Iran is the attendance of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had been asked by Israel not to attend the summit, arguing that doing so would legitimize the Iranian regime.
The United States had also said that Ban’s trip would not send a “good signal."
Despite the criticism Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, announced on August 22 that the UN chief will participate.
Nesirky said that Ban is aware of “the sensitivities” of his visit, while adding that the secretary-general has responsibilities that he is determined to carry out, both to the Nonaligned Movement and in relation to Iran.
"His visit is timely and important because of, not despite, these major concerns, which are shared by the United Nations," Nesirky said. "And while there, the secretary-general can speak on behalf of the entire international community to make clear directly to the Iranian leadership what the world expects from Tehran."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reacted by saying that the United States hopes that those who have chosen to attend the summit, including Ban, will make “very strong points” to Iran that it meet its international obligations and the expectations of the international community. There was no immediate reaction from Israel.
'Great Potential Of Iran'
At any rate, Iran is not about to let anything spoil its party.
Senior lawmaker Alaedin Boroujerdi said last week that the summit will invalidate U.S. and Israeli claims about the existence of a global united front against the Islamic republic.
"Iran's enemies have repeated this big lie every now and then," Boroujerdi was quoted as saying on August 12. "Nevertheless, the presence of leaders and representatives of 120 NAM member countries in Tehran will display the great potential of Iran."
Alex Vatanka, an expert on Iran at the Middle East Institute in Washington, is less optimistic.
"At best, it can be a symbolic gesture and, to be honest, it might just be enough to the Iranian regime right now to be able to say that they can bring people together," Vatanka says.
Yadollah Javani, the head of the political bureau of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has touted the summit as an opportunity to thwart the effects of Western sanctions by clinching "many" economic deals on the summit's sidelines.
The Middle East Institute's Vatanka is not optimistic of that happening, either.
"[The] Nonaligned Movement does not have a history of acting in unison," he says. "It's not like there is any possibility that they, as a collection of countries, could come together and circumvent the sanctions that are imposed on Iran. This has not been debated. Nobody talks long these lines."
Access To Prisoners
Human rights activists are attempting to use the summit to bring attention to the ongoing human rights abuses in the Islamic republic.
A group of Iranian bloggers and activists has called on invitees to set conditions for their participation in the Tehran summit -- access to jailed political prisoners. At the top of their list would be opposition leaders Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Musavi, as well as Musavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavar. The three have been under house arrest since their call for a demonstration in support of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in February 2011 attracted tens of thousands of opposition members.
Ardeshir Arjomand, Musavi’s adviser and the spokesman of the opposition Coordinating Council for the Green Path of Hope, made a similar call to Ban. Arjomand said in an open letter that the UN chief should use his participation at the summit to publicly express his disapproval of human rights abuses in Iran and meet with Musavi, Rahnavard, and Karrubi.