Iran, Syria Criticized at NAM Summit Intended for Support

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, “Claiming that another UN member state, Israel, does not have the right to exist, describing it in racist terms, is not only utterly wrong but undermines the principles we have all pledged to uphold.” Photographer: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Iran, which sought to use a Tehran summit to win support and repel efforts to isolate it, instead found its leaders rebuked by United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon over their stance on Israel and its ally Syria accused of losing legitimacy.

“I strongly reject threats by any member states to destroy another, or outrageous attempts to deny historical facts such as the Holocaust,” Ban told the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement today. “Claiming that another UN member state, Israel, does not have the right to exist, describing it in racist terms, is not only utterly wrong, but undermines the principles we have all pledged to uphold.”

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, speaking before Ban, told the gathering that Syria, one of Iran’s closest allies in the Arab world, was “oppressive” and had “lost its legitimacy.” The Syrian delegation, which included Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem, left the hall following his comments.

Ban’s and Mursi’s remarks may be a sobering call for Iran, whose officials had anticipated that hosting the summit would show the world they wouldn’t be marginalized amid efforts by the U.S. and its allies to isolate the country over its atomic program. NAM, the world’s biggest bloc of politically non-aligned nations, is more sympathetic to Iran than to the West.

‘Blood Libel’

Israel had urged Ban not to attend the meeting. “Today in Tehran, representatives of 120 nations heard a blood libel against the state of Israel and remained silent,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a text message, adding he would travel to the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York next month to “speak in a clear voice the truth about Iran’s terrorist regime.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Aug. 16 that Iran was “a strange place and an inappropriate place” for the NAM meeting.

“The summit is not turning out as the Iranians expected,” Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel, said by telephone. “They did not expect Syria to be challenged by Mursi, whose election they viewed as a strategic victory, and far worse was having Ban become the first foreign leader to challenge Khamenei’s Israel statements in his presence in Tehran.”

Building Confidence

In his opening speech to the summit, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “torture and terror is condoned when carried out by U.S. or Zionist regimes.” The meeting, which ends tomorrow, is being attended by 24 presidents, eight prime ministers, 50 foreign ministers and three kings.

Iran doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence, and Khamenei in a Feb. 3 sermon called the Jewish state a “cancerous tumor” that must be cut out.

Ban also urged the Iranian government to “take necessary measures to build international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program.”

The U.S. and the European Union have gone beyond four sets of UN sanctions intended to stop the Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear work. EU nations embargoed Iranian oil imports in July. Prosecutors are targeting institutions worldwide that use the U.S. financial system to process Iranian transactions.

Time Running Out

Netanyahu told U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Aug. 1 that time “is running out” for a peaceful solution to Iran’s atomic program. Israeli and U.S. leaders have said repeatedly that “all options are all the table” to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including a military strike.

Iran has said its atomic work is intended for civilian and not military purposes. “Those who stockpile nuclear bombs in their arsenals have no right to style themselves as the standard bearers of global security,” Khamenei said today.

The Iranian rial, linked to the U.S. dollar, plunged earlier this month after the country said it would review its official exchange rate. Iranian inflation has quickened while the economy has come under strain from the sanctions, and oil exports have dropped. Prices of meat, rice and bread have spiraled as the rial lost a third of its value against the dollar on the open market since November.

Mursi’s criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government dimmed Iran’s expectations that the new Egyptian administration would move quickly to reverse what had been more than 30 years of frosty relations between the two nations.

Intervention Needed

The crisis in Syria is on “all our necks, and we must realize that the bloodshed will not stop without active intervention” from other countries, Mursi said.

Muallem called the Egyptian leader’s remarks “very bad” and said in an interview that Syria would respond tomorrow when it addresses the forum.

Mursi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad agreed today that their foreign ministers would coordinate to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, Egypt’s state-run website Ahram Gate reported, without saying where it got the information.

“Mursi’s commentary is important in the context of the Arab world and draws an interesting line at a point where the Iranians had hoped they might find some common ground with a new Egyptian government,” said Crispin Hawes, head of the Middle East program at London’s Eurasia Group, a political risk research company. “It certainly dampens expectations within the Iranian leadership in terms of what may or may not be possible with Egypt.”

The Iranians still managed to come away with some gains from the summit, said Ashraf El Sherif, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. Mursi “refrained from siding with Saudi Arabia on the Sunni-Shia axis of conflict” and he didn’t directly mention Iran’s backing of Assad or address its nuclear program, El Sherif said.

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