- W H Auden
Next week, representatives from 118 of the world's 192 states will gather in Tehran for the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit.
In the corners of the NAM meetings, delegates mutter about the arrogance of the North, particularly the US, whose track record over the past few decades has been pretty abysmal. Ronald Reagan's dismissal of the problems of the South at the 1981 Cancun Summit on the North-South Dialogue still raises eyebrows, and George W Bush's cowboy sensibility still earns a few chuckles. But apart from these cheap thrills, little of value comes out of the NAM. Until the last decade there have been few attempts to create an ideological and institutional alternative to neoliberalism or to unipolar imperialism.
With the arrival of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in the past few years, the mood has lifted. The much more assertive presence of the BRICS inside the NAM and in the United Nations has raised hopes that US and European intransigence will no longer determine the destiny of the world. At the 14th NAM summit in Cuba (2006), the world seemed lighter. Hugo Chavez' jokes went down well; Fidel Castro was greeted as a titan. This seemed like the old days, or at least Delhi in 1983.
The US State Department's Victoria Nuland hastened to condemn the location as "a strange place and an inappropriate place for this meeting ... Our point is simply that Tehran, given its number of grave violations of international law and UN obligations, does not seem to be the appropriate place" for the NAM summit.
The US government is particularly chafed that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is making his pilgrimage to the NAM (he has attended every NAM summit since 1961, when Dag Hammarskjold left Belgrade to his death over African skies). Nuland notes that the US has expressed its "concern" to Ban. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was plainer: "Mr Secretary General, your place is not in Tehran."
Bombs over Tehran
Israel has been playing a peculiar game these past few months. Netanyahu and his coterie are the mirror image of the clownish behavior of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Both have a fulsome sense of themselves, preening before cameras with bluster. Sensational bulletins come from their mouths.
The fear is that Netanyahu is playing chicken with the US. He wants either to bait President Barack Obama to ratchet up the sanctions and fire off one or two missiles, or else to let loose his own hawks, flying twice the distance that they flew to Osirak in 1982 to bomb Bushehr now. Netanyahu's pressure startled his own president, Shimon Peres, who hastened to note, "It is clear that we cannot do this single-handedly and that we must coordinate with America." All this is a game of Chinese whispers, with so little clarity about what anyone is actually saying, and a great deal of anxiety about the exaggerations that have overwhelmed any capacity for mature discussion.
The US seems to want time for the new sanctions regime to take effect. In March, Iranian banks were disconnected from the SWIFT network that enables electronic financial transactions. Pressure on countries that import Iranian oil were stepped up, as the US and the Europeans threatened to take action against those who did not follow their own sanctions regime (which are much harsher than the various UN resolutions that have run over many years).
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be in Tehran. He will meet with Ahmadinejad, and talk to him about India's attempt to circumvent the sanctions regime. Between 10% and 12% of India's oil needs are furnished by Iran. There has been an attempt to switch to the Saudi supply, but this is much easier to talk about than to do. The problem for India and Iran has been over payments, since India cannot pay Iran for the oil. Iran has therefore agreed to accept 45% of its oil receipts in rupees, within India, and to use this money to buy Indian goods to import into Iran. Delegations from the business sector have gone back and forth to find things to sell the Iranians. But problems persist: The sanctions regime has made it nearly impossible for Indian tankers to get insurance for their journey to Iran. Nonetheless, the Indian business lobby estimates that bilateral trade between the two countries will rise from US$13.5 billion to $30 billion by 2015.
The tete-a-tete between Manmohan Singh and Ahmadinejad will also touch on the Indian investments at the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran, which has been used to bring Indian goods into Iran and to bring 100,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan. India and Iran have invested heavily in Afghanistan, and both have a common interest in making sure that the Taliban does not return to power in Kabul.
Here one would imagine that the US might see eye-to-eye with these old allies, but Washington's obsessive blinkers make it impossible for its officials to be proper diplomats. It has been a long-standing US aim to break the link between India and Iran, two stalwarts in the NAM.
Next week, New Delhi and Tehran will reinforce their fragile ties. Manmohan Singh will not make any grand gesture. This is not his temperament. Nonetheless, economic realities and the accidents of geography make the relationship necessary. This is unfathomable to Washington.