Mohamed Morsi's slap in the face brings Mahmoud Ahmedinejad back to square one

World focus: After Morsi’s bombshell, agreement on a policy over Syria looked more remote than ever

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tehran spared neither money nor effort to make the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, which concluded yesterday, a smashing success.

A spanking new conference hall was constructed in a smart suburb in the north of the capital, the crumbling highways from the airports were spruced up, 200 Mercedes Benz limousines were bought to haul the delegates back and forth. The summit days were declared a public holiday, to give police a justification for stifling any protests, and Tehran residents wishing to make themselves scarce were encouraged to do so by free gifts of petrol.

But it all went badly wrong. The arrival of Egypt's President, Mohamed Morsi, was a coup: the first visit by an Egyptian leader since the Iranian revolution of 1979. And Mr Morsi's decision to come was a slap in the face for Washington, a further reason for the Iranian President to grin.

The grin vanished, however, when Mr Morsi got up to speak. Far from endorsing Tehran's strategy, the moderate Islamist from Cairo, who has now shown several signs of being his own man, went straight for the jugular, identifying the civil war in Iran's close ally Syria as the latest in the line of just struggles that started in Tunis and went on to Cairo.

"We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria," Mr Morsi declared. The world had "a moral duty" to support the Syrian opposition, he went on, whose struggle, was comparable to the Palestinians'. "The Palestinian and Syrian people are actively seeking freedom, dignity and human justice." And he wasn't finished. "Our solidarity with the struggle of Syrians against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy," he said, "is an ethical duty, and a political and strategic necessity."

It was a grave humiliation for Mr Morsi's hosts, and provoked the Syrian delegation, led by the Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, to walk out. He later condemned the Egyptian's remarks as "an interference in Syria's internal affairs" and "an instigation for continuing the shedding of...Syrian blood".

The passage of the other trophy guest, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, through the summit was no happier for the Iranians. Like Mr Morsi, his acceptance of the invitation was seen as highly auspicious – but like the Egyptian he used his presence in Tehran to make his hosts squirm. Without naming any names, he characterised Iran's denial of the Holocaust as "outrageous". "I strongly reject any threat by any UN member state to destroy another," he said, "or outrageous comments to deny historical facts such as the Holocaust... Claiming another UN member state 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 promised to uphold."

These were not the words of support Tehran would have liked to hear. Nor was the rejection of a pre-summit tour of Iran's famously peaceful nuclear facilities the warm endorsement of friends that the summit was supposed to be. But these setbacks matter less in a country run by a regime like Iran's where the rulers hold all the cards: Iranians were none the wiser about Mr Morsi's and Mr Ban's scalding words, which were either mis-translated or merely ignored by state media. And Iranian TV viewers' lasting impression of the summit was probably Mahmoud Ahmadinjad giving a sheepish-looking Secretary-General a tremendous ear-bashing of his own.

How much does the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) matter? Fifty years ago, when the world was split between Washington and Moscow, it was seen as an influential alternative for those who wanted to retain their independence, a stage where the likes of Nehru and Tito could strut their stuff. This week, though 120 countries were represented, fewer than 50 sent their top men. As Shashi Tharoor, India's former deputy UN secretary-general, now an Indian MP, pointed out this week, today the NAM is only one of numerous bodies to which medium-sized powers can belong. India, for example, maintains "a series of relationships, in different configurations, some overlapping, some not, with a variety of countries for different purposes".

If Iran was hoping to use the summit to seize the diplomatic and moral high ground, the attempt blew up in its face: after Mr Morsi's bombshell and Syria's walkout, agreement on a policy over Syria looked remoter than ever. The summit also coincided with publication of a report by the International Atomic Energy Authority that Iran's capacity to refine uranium has been more than doubled, in defiance of sanctions. And today Tehran is likely to incur further condemnation when a dissident called Arzhang Davoodi, in jail since appearing in a documentary hostile to the Tehran regime in 2003, is expected to be executed. For Mr Ahmadinejad and his colleagues, it's back to square one.