Three Revelations from the Non-Aligned Summit

Farideh Farhi
            The Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran highlighted three aspects about Iran’s foreign relations and domestic politics.

            First, given Iran’s geographic location and resources, many countries in the neighborhood believe it is simply not good business to isolate Iran. For some, Western sanctions are even being perceived as an opportunity, illustrated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Tehran. Before his four-day visit, India made clear that bilateral economic relations were a top priority. The same was true for Iran. Singh’s large delegation was met at the airport by Iranian Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini.

            Iran and India currently do about $15 billion in trade. But the balance is heavily in favor of Iran, to the tune of more than 4 to 1, which has turned into a real issue because of U.S. and European sanctions on financial transactions between the two countries. For Iran, 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.

            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 constraining Iran’s optimal use of its resources. The opportunity costs of sanctions are huge. But Iran’s location and resources 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 U.S. 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.

            Second, the presence of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi reflected the benefit of engaging Iran directly. Their words created a conversation in Tehran, partly because Iran did not want to appear to be isolated.  Ban Ki-moon’s focus was on the basic contradiction in Iranian foreign policy — seeking to be a respected member of the international community while also loudly challenging international codes of conduct.
            In no uncertain terms, the U.N. leader said his purpose was “to highlight the cost of Iran’s current trajectory, both at home and in the international arena…Any country at odds with the international community,” he said,” is one that denies itself much-needed investment and finds itself isolated from the thrust of common progress.”
            Third, the NAM summit revealed that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sees himself in charge of implementing Iran’s foreign policy—not just setting the general direction of the country and then letting the president execute his directives.

            Khamenei entered the summit followed by former president and current Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also an unelected official. They were followed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was mostly treated as a non-person by the Iranian media. It was a telling contrast to the last major international meeting in Iran during the 1997 Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit. Fresh off his election, new President Mohammad Khatami took charge of the meeting—while Khamenei had almost no presence.
Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.
She is also a frequent contributor to Lobelog. Click here for her piece, "Beyond the Post-NAM Spin."
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