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U.N. Leader Will Attend Iran Summit Over American and Israeli Objections

Published: 08-22-12

Reprinted from the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/world/middleeast/ban-ki-moon-will-attend-iran-summit-over-american-and-israeli-objections.html

Despite objections by the United States and Israel, the United Nations announced Wednesday that Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, would visit Iran next week to attend the nonaligned movement’s annual meeting.

The decision, announced by Mr. Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, at the United Nations, was a public relations victory for Iran, which has asserted that American-led efforts to marginalize the country over its anti-Israeli invective and disputed nuclear program are a failure.

There was no immediate comment from the United States or Israel over the official announcement that Mr. Ban would attend the meeting. But earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel personally told Mr. Ban on the telephone that he should boycott the meeting this year to register displeasure with Iran, the host.

The 120 countries that are in the nonaligned movement represent the biggest single voting bloc in the 193-member General Assembly at the United Nations. It is customary for the secretary general to attend the movement’s annual meetings regardless of political sensitivities surrounding the host country, which rotates. The meeting in Tehran starts on Sunday and ends next Friday.

Iran has sought to portray the meeting as a reaffirmation of its importance in world affairs and a repudiation of the American-led campaign to ostracize Iran with a punishing regimen of economic sanctions over the Iranian uranium enrichment program, which Western nations and Israel have called a guise for developing the capability to make nuclear weapons. Iran insists that its uranium enrichment is for peaceful purposes.

The news about Mr. Ban’s decision came as Iranian officials were already expressing satisfaction that Mohamed Morsi, the new president of Egypt, would also be attending the meeting. Egypt-Iran relations have been frosty for more than three decades because of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty upheld by Mr. Morsi’s deposed predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

Questions about whether Mr. Ban would attend the meeting had intensified in recent days, particularly after Iranian leaders made threatening remarks against Israel on Friday, an annual Iranian holiday of solidarity with Palestinians in Israeli-occupied lands known as Jerusalem Day. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, known for a history of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel speech, called Israel an “insult to humankind and an affront to all world nations” and a scarlet letter that should be wiped “from the forehead of humanity.”

Mr. Ban has repeatedly called on Iranian leaders to refrain from such inflammatory rhetoric.

At the same time, Mr. Ban is under enormous pressure to be attentive to the nonaligned constituency at the United Nations. “A sizable chunk if not a majority of the world’s population are citizens of nonaligned nations,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It’s not something the United Nations secretary general can easily dismiss.”

Mr. Nesirky said Mr. Ban was “fully aware of the sensitivities, and fully aware of the responsibilities” in his decision to attend the meeting. He said that Mr. Ban’s visit would start next Wednesday and that he would engage in “meetings at the highest level” with Iranian leaders, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“It is certainly the secretary general’s expectation that he will have meaningful and fruitful discussions with the supreme leader,” Mr. Nesirky told reporters.