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.
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.
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.