Foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) states attend a meeting in Tehran on August 28, 2012 ahead of a summit which will gather dozens of heads of state. Condemnation of "unilateral" actions -- particularly sanctions on Iran and other nations -- and a demand for greater say in UN decision-making dominated talks in Tehran ahead of the Non-Aligned summit later this week. - AFP photo

 

DUBAI: Iranian officials have made no secret about their massive ambitions for this week's nonaligned nations' gathering, with a guest list including leaders such as Egypt's president and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.   

Tehran seeks to assert itself on a host of issues before the meetings close Friday: Syria's civil war, sidestepping Western sanctions, promoting its nuclear narrative and seeking to ease long-standing Middle East friction with rivals in Cairo and the Gulf. Yet it is likely to face substantial pushback.

While the country's leaders see the weeklong gathering of the 120-nation Nonaligned Movement as a major step toward validating Iran as a rising power, it also could highlight its limits and liabilities in the region and further afield.

''Iran sees itself as a cornerstone of nations trying to break free of what they call Western dominance,'' said Bruno Tertrais, an Iranian affairs analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

''This is good for domestic politics, but Iran confronts some sharp realities outside its borders.'''

High among them these days is Tehran's close bonds with Bashar Assad's regime in Syria - even as it has been abandoned by nearly every other Mideast nation and the West.

Tehran's unwavering support for Assad could, in fact, ultimately overshadow the andmark visit by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi later this week.

Morsi would be first Egyptian leader to travel to Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Iran broke ties with Cairo for its peace pact with Israel. Iran's disdain for the Egyptian leadership was so great that a street in Tehran was named after the ringleader of the assassination team that gunned down President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Morsi's visit - a four-hour stop Thursday en route from China - is part of a push by the new president to redefine his country's international relations away from the era of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, a close Washington ally.

The Islamist Morsi seeks ''a more active'' foreign policy ''based on more balanced relations,'' his spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters this week.

''We are not in competition with anyone, we don't have rivalries. We base our relations on national interests,'' Ali said.

Egypt hardly seems to be rushing into Iran's arms, however. Ali underlined that Morsi was visiting solely for the nonaligned summit and would not be holding bilateral talks with the Iranians.

That may be in part an attempt to reassure Saudi Arabia, Iran's top Gulf rival. Saudi Arabia has long been an opponent of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and has been suspicious of his rise to power.

But Morsi also is seeking to spearhead a new peace initiative for Syria's escalating civil war. Earlier this month, he included Iran in a proposed four-nation contact group with Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. His upcoming talks in Tehran on Syria, however, have already been dismissed by Syrian rebels as a dead end because of Iran's inclusion.

Abdelbaset Sieda, head of the rebel Syrian National Council, said Iran was ''part of the problem and not part of the solution ... and cannot possibly be impartial in any initiative.''

Rebels also hold 48 Iranian men taken captive earlier this month near Damascus.

Hamid Reza Shoukouhi, editor of Iran's independent Mardomsalari newspaper, believes that while Egypt and Iran could make some headway toward better ties, issues such as Syria show serious divides.

''Iran's main policies will not change in short term,'' he said.        Still, Tehran is making every effort to portray the gathering as a pivotal moment in its global aspirations.

The view is not unfounded. In terms of membership, the bloc is second only to the UN General Assembly and includes emerging economic powerhouses such as India, while giants China and Brazil hold observer status in the group.

But Iran - which took over the bloc's rotating presidency on Tuesday - seeks to reinvent what some see as a Cold War relic as a forum to limit the West's reach. Its foreign minister opened the meetings Sunday with a call to dilute the power of the UN Security Council. Other expected talking points include proposals to replace the US dollar and euro with local currencies in transactions between member states.

Iran also has boasted about the UN secretary-general's decision to address the meeting later this week. But pride could turn into embarrassment if Ban uses his appearance as a platform to criticize Tehran over its crackdowns on political dissent - including the house arrests of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi - or push for more access to its nuclear sites for UN inspectors.

Already on Tuesday, a UN spokesman in New York said Ban would bring up human rights and concerns over the nuclear program on the sidelines of the gathering.

''It's clear that when he goes there he will reiterate his concern that the overall human rights situation in Iran remains critical,'' Farhan Haq told reporters.

Updated Aug 28, 2012 07:57pm

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