The 16th Summit of NAM was attended by 29 heads of state including from India and Egypt, among others, as well as by the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) and representatives from 70 other counties. The Summit generated a lot of attention despite critics of the movement charging that it has lost its relevance, most notably for the choice of venue. This was because, in their view, the Summit would seem to confer a larger diplomatic acceptance of Iran even as it faces increased international pressure on account of its nuclear programme.
The United States and Israel were particularly disapproving of the choice of the Summit venue as “inappropriate”. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was even more critical, charging that the summit was a “stain on humanity” given that it was “saluting a regime that not only denies the Holocaust but pledges to annihilate the Jewish state, brutalises its own people, colludes in the murder of thousands of innocent Syrians and leads millions in chanting ‘Death to America, death to Israel’.”
The Summit no doubt provided a large international audience for the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to put forward his views in person – an opportunity that is not available to him normally. In other fora, where a wide gathering of world leaders assembles—for instance, at the UN General Assembly—the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, represents Iran and not the Supreme Leader. For Ahmadinejad, theSummit provided a major international platform at home, given that he is into his second and final term as President which ends in June 2013.
On his part, Khamenei, while opening the Summit, dwelt upon the “illogical, unjust and completely undemocratic structure and mechanism” of the UN Security Council (UNSC), asserted that nuclear weapons are both a threat to security and political power, criticised the US and its allies for “arming the usurper Zionist regime with nuclear weapons”, and insisted that Iran has “never been after nuclear weapons and that it will never give up the right of its people to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” The Iranian President in his speech also criticised the “monopoly” of the UNSC which “led to the confirmation of the fake criminal Zionist regime and further expansion of its occupation and crimes and oppressions.”
Despite US and Israeli criticism of UNSG Ban Ki Moon’s participation in the Summit, it is pertinent to note that the Summit provided an important opportunity to the UNSG to forcefully remind Tehran of the need to fulfill its international obligations regarding its nuclear programmes as well as urge it to quit making inflammatory statements. In his opening remarks, Ban “strongly reject[ed] threats by any member state to destroy another or outrageous attempts to deny historical facts, such as the Holocaust.” He further added: “Claiming that another UN Member State, Israel, does not have the right to exist, or describing it in racist terms, is not only utterly wrong but undermines the very principles we have all pledged to uphold.” On the nuclear issue specifically, Ban reminded Iran that NAM leadership provides it “with the opportunity to demonstrate that it can play a moderate and constructive role internationally. That includes responsible action on the nuclear programme which is among the top concerns of the international community.” Towards this end, he urged Iran to “build international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme”, fully comply with the UN Security Council resolutions, “thoroughly cooperate with the IAEA”, and engage constructively with the P5+1.
As far as India is concerned, it has been argued that there are three policy determinants vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear issue: strategic autonomy, regional strategic stability, and national security considerations. These continue to be operative in India’s interactions on the issue.
India’s Prime Minister as well as its Foreign Minister along with a host of senior officials attended the Summit. Manmohan Singh had attended the two previous summits at Sharm el-Sheikh and Havana as well. Responding to questions on the controversy over the venue on his way back fromTehran, Singh had this to say: NAM Summit is not meant to be a slap to any one country… Iran has been chosen as the Chairperson. Therefore, it is only appropriate that theSummit should meet in Iran, which is a very important country in our region and in the developing world… Meeting in Tehran has no more or no less significance than the fact that Iran being a member of NAM in good standing is hosting the Summit.
The Vienna chapter of NAM was formed in 2003 in order to better coordinate the group’s positions on the issue of safeguards at the IAEA. It is pertinent to note that this occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Iran nuclear issue coming to the international limelight in August 2002, and the subsequent visit of the then IAEA Director General, Mohammed El-Baradei, to Tehran in February 2003. Iran had agreed to abide by the revised Code 3.1 of its 1976 Subsidiary Arrangement during that visit. Iran, of course, went back on this decision in March 2007, in the immediate aftermath of the UNSC Resolution 1747, which expanded the number of sanctionable Iranian entities. Potter and Mukhatzanova note that theVienna chapter became very active particularly after 2005 due to increasing concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme as well as its prominent role in NAM and the IAEA.
Since NAM does not have a permanent secretariat, the role of the chairperson as well as of mechanisms like the Vienna chapter, the Coordinating Bureau (COB) in New York at the UN, the NAM Caucus at the UNSC as well as the NAM Troika, assume significance. One of the earliest instances of “mini-lateral” diplomacy vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear issue was the visit of the NAM Troika (made up of past, present, and future chairpersons) to Tehran in November 2005, comprising Malaysia, Cuba and South Africa. The Troika “appreciated” Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA and reaffirmed “the basic and inalienable right of all states parties to the NPT to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, without any discrimination and in conformity with their safeguards agreements in connection with the NPT.”
The NAM Troika’s engagement continued to be robust with delegation-level visits to Iran for interactions with Iranian officials, one of which took place in March 2007 as well as briefings on the issue with the participation of senior officials such as the IAEA DG in January 2008, among others. Other NAM formulations, including those of the May 2006 ministerial meeting, the September 2006 statement at the XIV Conference of Heads of State or Government, the July 2008 ministerial conference (held in Tehran), among others, appreciated the cooperation being extended by Iran to the IAEA—“the sole competent authority for verification of the respective safeguards obligations of member states….” They noted the “time-consuming” process of verifying the absence of undeclared material”, affirmed the “inviolability of peaceful nuclear activities” and the imperative of negotiations and diplomacy, and urged a resolution of issues within the IAEA framework.
As far as India is concerned, it has been argued that there are three policy determinants vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear issue: strategic autonomy, regional strategic stability, and national security considerations. These continue to be operative in India’s interactions on the issue. Ahead of the NAM summit, when Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai was asked whether India will convey America’s concerns regarding regional peace and security to the Iranians—as hoped for by the US State Department spokesperson—Mathai affirmed that “peace and security” were India’s priority as well given the importance of West Asia for India’s security and its economy, and added that “we do not have to take anybody else’s concern as being a priority over that.” Mathai went on to affirm that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will “raise all issues of importance in India-Iran bilateral relations, and issues of interest and concern to us.” In a statement prior to departing for Tehran, Singh stated that he will discuss regional and global issues with his interlocutors. Given the above, though Singh’s speech at the Summit did not include any reference to the Irannuclear issue, India’s concerns about regional stability would surely have been conveyed to the Iranians.
India has on numerous occasions prior to the Tehran Summit affirmed that a nuclear Iran is not in its strategic interests, and its voting behaviour at the IAEA is testimony to that fact. India cutting down on Iranian oil imports (down from 16 per cent during 2008–09 to 10 per cent currently, and likely to go down even further) is another concrete manifestation of India’s actions being in tune with international concerns, although such reductions are against its energy security needs.
India is currently a non-permanent member of the UNSC, along with seven other NAM members (Azerbaijan, Colombia, Guatamela, Morocco,Pakistan, Togo and South Africa). India is also a member of the 2012–13 IAEA BOG, having been elected along with 12 others by the outgoing Board. The other 23 countries will be nominated during the September IAEA General Conference. In the 2011–12 Board, whose term ends in September 2012, there are 14 NAM members and three NAM Observer countries. In the light of India’s past record at the IAEA, it is to be expected that India’s positions at such venues will continue to be guided by its own understanding rather than be determined by NAM positions or even by “Western pressure”—the oft cited reason by critics of India’s Iran policy. India’s Explanation of Vote in the aftermath of its November 2009 IAEA vote insisted that the conclusions drawn by the IAEA DG in his report earlier that month “were difficult to ignore”. It went on to note that “the Agency’s safeguards system is the bedrock of the international community’s confidence that peaceful uses of nuclear energy and non-proliferation objectives can be pursued in a balanced manner. The integrity of this system should be preserved.”
India’s high-level representation at the NAM Summit reinforce its opposition to policies that isolate key countries in its neighbourhood with which it has important energy security ties.
At another level, India’s participation adds to the weight of the considerable international opinion against the exercise of more muscular options to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue. India has earlier held the exercise of such an option “unacceptable international behaviour” with “disastrous consequences for the entire region, affecting the lives and livelihood of five million Indians resident in the Gulf, and the world economy.” Such formulations are similar to the concerns expressed by major powers like Russia and Japan in recent times.
It remains to be seen what price such policies extract from India’s other significant bilateral relationships like that with the US and Israel. Given the importance of these countries’ bilateral ties with India spanning the economic and security spheres as well as robust people-to-people contacts, there may not be any significant downside as regards India’s relationship with these countries over the long term. It is pertinent to note that during his interaction with the media on the flight from Tehran to New Delhi, Singh noted Israeli expertise on water technology as having “morals for many other countries” while replying to a question on food security that his speech at the NAM Summit had highlighted.
To be sure, NAM countries would only have to make a call if and when a vote is required to be taken at the IAEA or the UNSC on the Iran nuclear issue. This is, of course, not a given if there is indeed some forward movement in addressing concerns over the coming months. Also, the possibility of the pursuit of multilateral punitive measures is limited in the light of the likely strong opposition from countries such as Russia, China and India, among others, as well as the current policy stance of the US and EU, which are pursuing unilateral punitive measures to “force” such cooperation from Iran.