Schram: Iran's unconventional world convention

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi delivers his

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi delivers his speech during the opening session of the expert-level meeting of XVI summit of the Non-Alligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. (Aug. 26, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

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Historians may someday call this week's convention-hall events -- the speech-making and backroom decision-making -- the beginning of a change that reordered the way the world works.

Indeed, many delegates may have already concluded just that. Partly because so many world-famous political figures showed up. And partly because of the most unconventional art the delegates had to walk past to enter the convention hall: three clumps of twisted metal, formerly automobiles driven by three Iranian nuclear scientists, blown up by perpetrators officially unknown. Beside each wreck were large photos of the scientists and their children.

No, we aren't talking about a convention hall in Tampa -- but one in Tehran.


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Halfway around the world from where the U.S. political media's big eye was focusing on the Republican National Convention and hanging on the words of presidential standard-bearer Mitt Romney, much of the rest of the world was focusing on a coincidentally parallel weeklong meeting of an organization called the Nonaligned Movement.

This is no small fringe gathering that opened Sunday in Tehran. Delegates from 120 nations were reportedly attending. The United States mounted a significant back-channel effort to dissuade world leaders from attending the summit. The Obama administration's effort met with little noticeable success.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought a delegation of 250 and reportedly planned to meet separately with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and also with the summit's hosts, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, changed his plans at the last minute and flew to the summit -- a significant policy shift because Egypt ended its diplomatic relations with Iran after recognizing Israel in 1980.

And perhaps most significantly, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon brushed aside the objections of the United States and Israel and decided to attend the summit as well. He showed the world he is strangely unperturbed by the fact that Iran has for years ignored UN Security Council resolutions and obstructed UN nuclear inspectors.

"We, frankly, don't think that Iran is deserving of these high-level presences that are going there," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

But whether Iran is deserving clearly was never of prime importance to the world leaders who chose to come to Tehran. Each came with an agenda of personal objectives that overrode their sense of geopolitical order. The UN secretary general, for example, bitterly disappointed at the failure of efforts to end the slaughter of civilians in Syria, wants to persuade Iran to pressure Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to resign and flee into exile.

Can it be that summits such as this can replace the UN's glass skyscraper as the place where global deal-making happens? Iran hopes so. Its supreme leaders portrayed themselves as victims of western persecution and urged the Nonaligned Movement to oppose economic sanctions. And moving from trial balloons to real ones, they reportedly floated a balloon above Tehran's main square, trailing this message: "Iran, a peaceful and kind nation." But a more ominous message awaits.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has concluded that Iran has sped up its nuclear program by installing hundreds of new centrifuges in a deep underground facility called Fordow, according to a story first reported by the Reuters news agency and then confirmed by The New York Times. The facility is located on a military base near Qum. It is reportedly considered invulnerable to military attack. Iran is also reported to be enriching its uranium to a purity level of 20 percent -- but it is only for medical research, Iran says. Nuclear experts say it can be quickly converted to make a nuclear bomb.

Not too far away from the Tehran summit, Israelis debate in public and private whether a preemptive military attack on Iran's nuclear installations should be attempted and can succeed. The Times reports that Iran could build a crude nuclear weapon within months and that it will take Iran a couple of years to build a nuclear-capable warhead capable of being launched on a missile.

That ultimate grim reality floated like a balloon in the atmosphere of the Tehran summit -- unseen and unspoken, but understood by all in the neighborhood that is the Middle East.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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