Israel and the US aren't happy about it, but UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is visiting Iran this week for the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a coalition of 120 countries with a more than 50-year history.
Iran currently chairs the NAM, a position it will hold for the next three years. The US and Israel were both irked by Ban's decision to attend the meeting — although it is customary for the UN secretary-general to do so — because they are concerned Iran, in its new leadership role, will seize the opportunity to "deflect attention from its own failings," in the words of US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. Israel's criticism has been far more scathing, according to Bloomberg.
A statement released last week by Ban’s spokesperson said that the Secretary-General plans to use the trip to Iran as an “opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community on the issues for which cooperation and progress are urgent for both regional stability and the welfare of the Iranian people. These include Iran’s nuclear programme, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria.”
On the general agenda, Ban plans to discuss "sustainable development, disarmament, conflict prevention and support for countries in transition" with the assembled member-countries, according to the UN statement.
But what exactly is the NAM, and what’s the significance of this meeting? We've pulled together the following explainer.
What is the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)?
The NAM is a legacy of the Cold War that grew from a desire among two dozen African and Asian nations not to align with either the Soviet or the Western bloc. According to author Joseph Robert White, the “loose association of nations” that first convened in 1961 “sought to create a third force” between the dueling world powers.
“From the outset, NAM embraced issues theoretically unrelated to the Cold War,” White writes, which included “anticolonialism, antiracism, economic development, and, under the Arab states’ influence, anti-Zionism.”
According to Jürgen Dinkel, a doctoral candidate at Giessen University who penned a review of a 2011 conference about the movement's history, NAM also grew out of anticolonial movements around the world. Dinkel wrote that the “founding fathers of non-alignment” were Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who developed the idea of the new joint body in the mid-1950s.
Today, “the NAM is largely a talk shop,” Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told GlobalPost. “There’s been an effort to try to coordinate policies with respect to human rights issues, development issues, etc., but mostly the emphasis has been — as it’s been from the start — on non-intervention and the promotion of often quite unrealistic alternative economic patterns, as opposed to the global capitalist system,” he said.
How big is the movement?
Membership in the NAM has grown over the past five decades to 120 countries, according to the website for its sixteenth summit, being held in Tehran this week. Iran currently holds the chairmanship of the group, which convenes about every three years.
Most of the movement’s members are developing countries, according to the Associated Press, though Patrick, of CFR, notes that their respective paths of development have varied widely since the group’s inception.
“The NAM [has] grown increasingly heterogeneous over the years, with some countries having experienced extraordinary economic takeoff and other countries still mired in misgovernance and economic stagnation,” he said. For example, Indonesia, South Africa and India, all members of the NAM, are also now members of the G20, Patrick noted, giving each a curiously split identity.
NAM countries represent about two thirds of the UN's membership, making them a formidable bloc within the General Assembly.
What has the movement achieved?
Some of the movement's primary impact over the years has come from its ability to influence public opinion in subtle ways through reports and media coverage of its summits, according to Dinkel. However, other scholars have noted that NAM has historically lacked cohesive policy.
CFR’s Patrick said that the dilution of clear goals for the NAM has become more of a problem as their member nations’ paths have diverged. “There’s not a really clear agenda for what its future is in a world of diffusing power, where the NAM membership itself is becoming much more heterogeneous,” he said. “It will increasingly, I think, be in search of a coherent agenda.”
Its prominence as a major constituency of the UN General Assembly is the NAM’s key point of leverage, Patrick said. “The NAM’s most tangible influence is within the UN,” he said, although much of that influence is on purely symbolic measures.
Nonetheless, some believe that this week's summit holds significant power to sway the course of international relations, particularly because it will be in Iran. Kaveh Afrasiabi, formerly a political science professor at Tehran University and adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team, wrote in a New York Times editorial: "Although the Tehran summit has been mocked as a 'bacchanal of nonsense,' it is likely to have significant implications, above all for regional peace and stability." Afrasiabi also believes the summit provides Iran with a real opportunity to raise its "regional and international clout."
Why are the US and Israel so opposed to Ban Ki Moon’s attendance at the NAM summit in Iran?
Many of the NAM’s most prominent leaders have been “some of the most anti-American and anti-Israeli voices out there,” said CFR’s Patrick. Though it is customary for UN Secretary-Generals to attend NAM summits, Ban’s decision to attend one under the chairmanship of Iran has loaded the visit’s meaning.
“Ban’s decision to attend in the face of Israeli and US opposition is a reflection of the fact that the NAM is an incredibly important constituency for the Secretary-General,” Patrick said.
However, Ban is aware of the line he is walking between different diplomatic camps, and has promised to press Iran on some of its most controversial practices. Said Patrick: “The proof of whether or not this is something that’s a real public relations coup for the Iranians is whether or not Ban shows the courage when he’s in Tehran to hold the Iranians to account.”