Iran hypes a summit that is meaningless to its people
Several years ago, a Malaysian journalist was invited, all expenses paid, to visit Tehran to attend a conference on the life of Ayatollah Khomeini. The journalist marvelled at the royal treatment he received in Iran, returned home laden with delectable Persian sweets and exquisite handicrafts courtesy of his hosts, but complained that he met few Iranians outside of government.
Mission accomplished: Score one for the Islamic Republic's propaganda machine.
Representatives of the nations gathering at the Non-Aligned Movement (Nam) summit, another Tehran meeting that begins today, will likely spend little time outside the confines of their hotel or the convention grounds. They will hear defiant messages from Iranian officials, claiming that the Nam summit was a victory against attempts to isolate Iran, and that its leaders would remain steadfast in pursuing their goals despite "western plots" and "big power meddling".
The hard-line Keyhan newspaper has already trumpeted the summit's high attendance as "a slap in the face to Israel" and "a powerful blow" to the US and its allies.
But if the delegates do manage to step outside their diplomatic bubble, as unlikely as that is, they would see a young and dynamic population eager for change, angry at the status quo, and hard-hit by sanctions and international isolation. Tehran is a society on edge, with high rates of drug addiction, severe economic decline of the middle class, and a tense political climate fraught with the triple fear of increased government repression, further sanctions, and the possibility of a war with Israel and the US.
The visit of a few diplomats from Asia, Africa and Latin America will do nothing for the Iranian father who must hold two jobs just to make ends meet - caught between a choking sanctions regime, an economy riven by corruption and mismanagement and a government that seems to care more about its international image than its own people.
Witness the Iranian government's reaction to the devastating earthquake this month, in the north-west of the country, that killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless. In one of the most callous decisions on the part of any government anywhere, the Islamic Republic announced that it had stopped searching for survivors under the rubble less than 24 hours after the quake - even though hundreds of years of quake history reveals that victims can survive for days, even weeks.
The chest-thumping Iranian speech-givers at the Nam summit will probably not remember the quake victims in their speeches. They will be too busy spinning a narrative to the world, a narrative of victory and defiance - a narrative that the world is not buying.
It has been 33 years since Iran's revolutionaries overthrew the Shah and ushered in an Islamic Republic - a largely failed experiment that has brought more brutal repression, economic failure, a restive population, international isolation and the crude callousness of a government that simply leaves victims of a quake under the rubble, leaves them literally to die.
The world is open today, much more so than Iranian government officials would like to admit. The world hears the cries of Iranian dissidents, sees the youths beaten in the streets, reads the articles about economic pain resulting from sanctions. The world cannot be duped.
The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had no time for quake victims. He was too busy flying off to Saudi Arabia to attend an Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting. For two days, Iranian state television largely ignored the earthquake, filling the airwaves with news of Iran's Olympic medals and a full-throated defence of the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad as more blood spilled in Syria. After a fierce public reaction, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei finally visited the quake site last week.
The earthquake came at an inconvenient time, it seems. Tehran was busy preparing the city for the non-aligned summit, a gathering that has lost all its meaning from its Cold War heyday as a forum of nations aligned with neither the United States nor the Soviet Union. But Tehran takes the Nam seriously - one of the few countries in the world that still does.
And Tehran hopes Nam will show the world it is not isolated. So, 120 nations attended? They attended because of Nam, not Tehran. But sending a deputy foreign minister to listen to a few speeches and shake a few hands is one thing, engaging strategically with Iran is another. Few countries are willing to do so. Even the much-hyped visit of Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, the first Egyptian leader to visit Iran since 1979, involves just a few hours on the ground.
Despite claims to the contrary, Iran is strategically lonely, with not a single major power willing to aid it in the event of crisis and many of its so-called "allies" quietly choosing the US over Iran in the row over its nuclear programme. The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, may be visiting Tehran, but most Indian refiners are choosing to cut back dramatically their purchases of Iranian oil.
Diplomacy by summitry is nothing new to the Islamic Republic of Iran. They have been doing it for years. Many an African or Asian journalist or dignitary has been feted and hosted, all expenses paid, to attend a conference. Tehran uses its meetings to send the world a message that is usually two-fold: "we are not isolated" and "we will remain steadfast in our 'principles'".
But what kind of "principle" leaves a people helpless, buried in rubble after an earthquake, while the president jets off to a summit, and the government calls off attempts to find survivors?
That issue will not be on the Nam agenda.
Afshin Molavi is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation
On Twitter: @AfshinMolavi
Updated: August 30, 2012 04:00 AM