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Opinion | Tehran Summit of Nonaligned States an Opportunity for Potent Protest


23 Aug 2012 20:39Comments

Visiting leaders must be pressed to address the dire situation of the Iranian people, activists say.

Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a columnist for Tehran Bureau and contributes regularly to other Internet and print media.
[ opinion ] The 16th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) will convene in Tehran this Sunday through next Friday, August 31. The organization currently has 120 member states; an additional 21 countries attend its conferences as observers. According to the latest report, 51 nations are scheduled to be represented at the summit by dignitaries at the level of president, vice president, monarch, or prime minister, while other countries' delegations will be led by their foreign ministers, ambassadors to Iran, or other officials.

The Islamic Republic has heavily invested in the summit, in hopes that it will demonstrate to the world that it is not isolated internationally, contrary to what the United States and its allies assert. Senior officials have been pointing to the large number of delegations that will take part, seemingly blind to the fact that the true power of any international movement rests in its economic strength and popular support through democratic governance.

The NAM was founded in 1961 in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia, by five major political figures: Yugoslavian President Marshal Josip Broz Tito a hero of the Balkan anti-fascist forces during World War II; Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a hero of the Arab world and ardent advocate of pan-Arabism; Sukarno, Indonesia's independence leader and first president; Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader of the country's struggle for independence; and Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana and leader of its independence movement. The group consisted of countries that chose to ally with neither the Soviet Union nor the United States during the Cold War.

Before the 1979 Revolution, Iran was not a member of the NAM. In addition to its close alliance with the United States and Great Britain, Iran was also a member of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), which it cofounded in 1955 along with Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and Britain; the United States joined the organization three years later. After the Revolution, CENTO was dissolved and the Islamic Republic of Iran joined the NAM, becoming one of its most active members.

Kaleme, the website that is close to Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, has reported on the vast sums that the government has been spending in preparation for the summit. Among various expenditures, the website noted the 120 billion tomans (approximately $100 million at the official rate of exchange) that have been spent on building renovations; the purchase of 200 Mercedes-Benzes, each priced at 350 million tomans (for a total of around $58 million), along with hundreds of other vehicles; and the rental of two entire highrises, as well as dozens of additional luxury apartments. According to Kaleme, a company owned by a Mr. "Gh.," said to be associated with Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's chief of staff and close confidant, has been contracted by the Iranian government to transport summit guests during their stays in Tehran -- up to 10,000 visitors, including the delegations and journalists, are expected to attend.

The six-day period during which the summit will be held has been declared a holiday in Tehran, at an estimated loss to the nation of $5 billion. It was also announced that during the Persian month of Shahrivar (August 22 to September 21), the government will make available to each adult Tehrani an additional eight gallons of subsidized-price gasoline, thus further encouraging residents of the capital to view the summit as a vacation opportunity; the announcement apparently came as a surprise to officials at the Ministry of Oil, who professed to know nothing about it.

Aside from the economic loss that will result from the holiday, the total direct cost to the nation of holding the NAM summit may approach $1 billion. By comparison, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar said that 60 billion tomans (around $50 million) have been devoted to help the tens of thousands of survivors of the two major earthquakes that struck East Azerbaijan province less than two weeks ago. All of this is happening while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered the development of what he has called the "resistance economy," one in which waste is avoided and belts are tightened to counter the effect of the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran.

The democratic opposition, and in particular the Green Movement, should use the summit as an opportunity to raise its voice, make the NAM's member states unavoidably aware of the political and social repression in Iran, and rejuvenate the movement, many activists say. The nation is paying dearly for the summit, and those who will attend it will be the nation's guests. As the host, the Iranian nation has the right to demand certain actions from those guests. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been tasked with providing security for Tehran during the summit. That itself is indicative of the ruling elite's concerns about the potential the event holds for the Green Movement.

Steps have already been taken in this direction. There have been calls on the leaders of the NAM to exert pressure on the Islamic Republic to free all of its political prisoners, in particular Mousavi, his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi. At the minimum, the leaders have been asked to demand that they be allowed to visit the trio. Several political groups in the diaspora (see, for instance, here and here), as well as political and human rights activists, have written either public letters to the NAM leaders, or sent letters to their offices around the world. A letter by a group of activists to the NAM leaders states in part,

Given the general goals of the NAM Conference for stability and reduction of tension in the international arena, one must consider the fact that respecting the fundamental rights of every citizen of every nation contributes to the stability of each nation, thus promoting international peace and security. In light of the perilous situation that Iranians are experiencing, we ask that when you attend the 16th Summit, you convey to Iranian officials your concern about the political prisoners. Ask for visitation rights and their immediate release, particularly for [former] Prime Minister Mousavi, his wife, and former Parliament Speaker Karroubi.

The Coordination Council for the Green Path of Hope, the temporary leadership council while the Green Movement leaders remain under house arrest, has sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that states, "The freedom-loving people of Iran expect you, as part of your duties, to use the trip to Tehran to meet with Mousavi, Dr. Rahnavard, Karroubi, the families of the political prisoners, and representatives of the political and civic organizations that have been outlawed."

Social networks have called on the residents of Tehran to remain in the city and for people elsewhere around the country to head to the capital and crowd the streets, so the foreign reporters who will be allowed en masse into Iran for the first time in three years can see their gatherings. Due to the summit, it is unlikely that the Revolutionary Guards will use force to disperse the people. Others have urged the people to go to their roofs during the summit and shout "Allah-o Akbar" or other slogans; see also here and here. There have also been calls to write slogans on walls around Tehran that can be seen by the foreign visitors. A group calling itself the Green Students of the Universities in Tehran has called for peaceful demonstrations in Tehran for four consecutive days during the summit and announced marching routes. Meanwhile, others have called on the people to create noise throughout the city to give the NAM leaders the impression that they have entered a war zone. Another group has protested the fact that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi plans to take part in the summit, while Iranians wholeheartedly supported the democratic revolution in his own country.

All such efforts must be intensified in the coming days. This is a golden opportunity to protest the terrible conditions in the country and have members of the international community at the highest level hear those protests. Having paid an extravagant price to hold the summit in Tehran -- aside from extensive concessions that many believe the Islamic Republic made behind the scenes to encourage other NAM members to participate -- the nation can turn this into an occasion in which thousands of foreigners, from journalists to politicians, can see and hear with their own eyes and ears the cries of a great nation under siege from all sides.

The regime is well aware of the opportunity the summit presents for the rejuvenation of the Green Movement. In addition to the state's announcing a holiday for the people of Tehran, subsidizing gasoline to encourage them to leave the capital, and putting the Revolutionary Guards in charge of security, Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan, deputy commander of the national police, has said that his forces will be on high alert during the six days of the summit.

All opinions expressed are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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