By C Raja Mohan
The sixteenth summit of the Non-Aligned Movement concluded in Tehran over the weekend, belying much of the political hopes and fears and that preceded it.
Tehran projected the NAM summit as a historic moment when a resurgent Global South would rally behind Iran in its political confrontation with the West.
The United States expended much political capital in trying, rather unsuccessfully, to dissuade world leaders from traveling to Tehran.
At the end of the summit, both Washington and Tehran look rather sheepish. The Tehran summit revealed the deep political fissures in the Middle East and the utter incoherence of the NAM as a collective political entity.
If there was a winner from the NAM summit, it was undoubtedly Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt. The summit provided Morsi a perfect stage to demonstrate that a newly democratic Egypt will claim its rightful place in the world.
Morsi was in Tehran for barely six hours. But they were enough for him to signal unambiguously that Egypt’s prolonged marginalisation from regional affairs, under the autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak, has come to an end.
By going to Tehran, despite much criticism from the United States, Morsi signalled that others could no longer guide Egypt’s regional policy. By the time he finished speaking, Tehran had every reason to wonder if Morsi’s presence was such a great idea.
The first visit by an Egyptian president to Iran in more than three decades was to have been an important part Tehran’s political celebrations last week.
Morsi, however, rained on Tehran’s party by strongly supporting the Syrian people fighting the regime of Bashar al Assad, a close ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In denouncing Damascus, Morsi was more vehement that any of the Western governments criticising Syria. He also positioned himself far away from the traditionalists of the NAM, like India, that were mouthing the old slogans of "non-intervention" in the deepening Syrian crisis.
“We should urge all parties to recommit themselves to resolving the crisis peacefully through a Syrian-led inclusive political process that can meet the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens.” That was the diplomatic gobbledygook from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Tehran.
Morsi, in contrast, was muscular: “Our solidarity with the children of beloved Syria against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is a moral duty as much as a political and strategic necessity that stems from our belief in a coming future for the free proud Syria”.
Reports from the region now say the official Persian interpreter at the NAM misrepresented many of Morsi’s remarks that did not fit with the Iranian positions.
Having built up Morsi’s visit as a diplomatic triumph, the establishment in Tehran probably had few options. For those hearing Morsi’s speech in Arabic, there was little confusion. The Syrian delegation found Morsi’s remarks offensive enough to walk out.
Morsi’s bold diplomacy, however, has electrified Egypt. His readiness to defy the United States, publicly assert Egypt's interests in Syria, and challenge many of Iran's political positions has won huge praise in the Arab world.
The return of Egypt as a political force at the Tehran summit should compel Washington to rethink many of their traditional assumptions about the Middle East.
The deepening divisions in the region and the NAM's utter inability to bridge them have important political lessons for the United States.
Washington should stop demonising the NAM, an organisation whose bark is worse than its bite.
This post was originally published at The Indian Express.
4 September 2012