On My Mind: Tehran’s global diplomacy

Iran’s president did not attend the Olympic Games in London. The UK has a “problem with my presence,” he said.

Iranian demonstrators carry a British flag (R) 311 (photo credit: 	 REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
Iranian demonstrators carry a British flag (R) 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
Iran’s president did not attend the Olympic Games in London. Though he was not among the several heads of state on the EU travel-ban list, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad decided to stay home. The UK has a “problem with my presence,” he said.
Last November an Iranian mob ransacked the British Embassy in Tehran. That outrage followed the British government’s ban on dealings with Iran’s Central Bank, a bold initiative that led to stronger US and EU sanctions aimed at stopping Iran from achieving nuclear-weapons capability.
But sanctions rarely touch the highest echelons of the targeted regime. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s decision to not come to the Olympiad was an exception to what otherwise has been an extensive global itinerary. In contrast to the ever-tightening economic sanctions, no government has initiated actions to ground Ahmadinejad’s plane.
Ahmadinejad, for example, has visited Latin America seven times since he took power in 2005. In January, he came to Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, his favorite regional ally. He returned to Caracas in June, after addressing the UN-sponsored Rio + 20 summit in Brazil.
UN conferences are especially appealing. They provide ideal settings for Ahmadinejad to maintain his statesman appearance, reinforcing Iran’s stature in global diplomacy. Indeed, even Kofi Annan, before resigning last week as special UN envoy on Syria, made a special trip to Tehran in a vain attempt to secure Iran’s assistance in dealing with President Bashar Assad, whose brutally violent crackdown has been sustained thanks to Iranian military support.
THE MAIN stage for Ahmadinejad, however, is the UN General Assembly. While the US, EU and others, including neighboring Arab states, mobilize out of genuine concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Iranian president will arrive at New York City’s JFK airport, get federal and local security protection, and ascend the UN podium to harangue the US and Israel.
Suggestions that the US government consider denying the Iranian leader entry to American shores are met with arguments that Americans must take a deep breadth and accept the obligations of their country hosting the UN headquarters.
Next month’s visit comes as tensions with Iran continue to escalate, and not just over the nuclear program. Iran has been accused of recent terror attacks against Israelis and other Jews in Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia and India. The Bulgaria attack came 18 years after Iran organized the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires.
Moreover, Ahmadinejad, in a Tehran speech last week, revealed again the depths of his hatred of not only Israel, but of Jews. Colbert King, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist found Ahmadinejad’s remarks so chilling that he issued a clarion call to the international community. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is the greatest threat to Jews to emerge in the past 70 years,” wrote King. “I do, as a non-Jew, recognize vicious anti-Semitism when I see it. The Iranian government is as anti- Semitic as the Third Reich.”
Ahmadinejad will come to the UN General Assembly opening with an expanded global role as the new head of the Non-Aligned Movement. The timing could not be better for Iran amidst the increasing chatter about “all options on the table” in the increasingly tense confrontation with the US over its nuclear program.
NAM was founded in 1961 at the height of the Cold War to give a voice to nations theoretically not aligned with the US or Soviet Union. Historically, NAM has tended to take positions at odds with the West. With a membership of 120 countries, and 21 observer states, NAM is the largest voting bloc in the UN General Assembly.
AHMADINEJAD, DURING his three-year term as NAM Chair, can be expected to use the organization to further advance Iran’s global diplomacy, to counter international efforts against Iran’s nuclear program, and, among other issues, position itself as the preeminent advocate for the Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is expected to attend, already is lobbying for the summit to endorse the PA’s latest UN gambit. Unable to get Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state, the PA now seeks a majority General Assembly vote to upgrade Palestine to non-member observer state. Neither the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, who visited Tehran in February, or Abbas has refuted Ahmadinejad’s latest threats against Israel and the Jewish people.
Which NAM members decide to join Ahmadinejad in Tehran in just a few weeks will tell a lot about the Iranian leader’s stature. Those who recognize the multifaceted threats Iran poses to regional and global security should take a cue from Ahmadinejad and the Olympics, and just stay home. A large turnout will only further empower the Iranian regime’s defiance.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.