- 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.
Created in 1961, the NAM was a crucial platform for the Third World Project (whose history I detail in The Darker Nations). It was formed to purge the majority of the world from the toxic Cold War and from the maldevelopment pushed by the World Bank. After two decades of useful institution-building, the NAM was suffocated by the enforced debt crisis of the 1980s. It has since gasped along.
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).
Iran's central bank has pointed to a deep decline in the share of Iranian exports -- and concomitantly, a perilous position for its population. What seems not to be on the radar of those who create these sanctions regimes is that they rarely turn the population against its government. In Iran, it might actually be detrimental to the reform movement. Washington fulminates about autocracy in Iran and the bomb, but it does not realize that for most Iranians (44% of whom live in slums), the core problem is of livelihood and well-being.
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.