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Vijay Prashad: Syria will be the big issue in the Non Aligned Summit in Iran, with many heads of state
visiting Tehran in spite of US/Israeli campaign to isolate Iran

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

Sunday, the Non-Aligned Movement is meeting in Tehran. In fact, 50 heads of state are heading to Iran for this meeting. It doesn’t sound like Iran is quite as isolated as the West would like it to be.

Now joining us to talk about these meetings is Vijay Prashad. He’s a professor of international studies at Trinity College. He’s also the author of the recent book Arab Spring and Libyan Winter. And he joins us from Hartford, Connecticut. Thanks very much for joining us.


JAY: So first of all give a little bit of background on the Non-Aligned Movement for people that don’t get it, and then let’s talk about who’s going.

PRASHAD: Well, the Non-Aligned Movement was created in 1961 at a meeting in Belgrade in Yugoslavia. It brought together the newly freed countries of North Africa and Africa, of Asia, some countries in Latin America, notably Cuba, which had just won its revolution in 1959, and of course the host, Yugoslavia. The point that they had when they created the Non-Aligned Movement was to suggest that there had to be an independent path that is independent from the Western alliance, the NATO pact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization pact led by the United States and Western Europe, and on the other hand by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact. So the idea was: neither the West nor the Soviets were going to be able to fully provide the independence that the new states have come to expect, and they wanted to create a platform, a position for themselves where they could articulate their own views. And that was the Non-Aligned Movement, which they created in 1961 in Belgrade.

Since then, of course, they’ve met every few years. But since the 1980s, the Non-Aligned Movement has been rather adrift. It’s not really had an agenda, the kind of agenda it had in 1961. But now it seems that things are turning for the Non-Aligned Movement.

JAY: But who’s going is very interesting. First of all, they’re sort of people you expect would go, which are people that are at odds with the U.S. But there’s quite a few American allies going. So give us a sense of who’s heading there.

PRASHAD: Well, the first thing to keep in mind is the Non-Aligned Movement, despite the fact that it has been a little adrift since the 1980s, is the principal gathering point for the countries of the world. You know, there are now 193 states that are members of the United Nations, and about 150 countries are going to be represented at the Non-Aligned meeting. So these countries have gone, despite the fact that they’ve had some great disagreements with each other over the years.

And at the meeting, the UN Secretary-General, the United Nations Secretary-General is always in attendance. I mean, it’s one of the most important meetings of the world. Of course, it’s not something that the West pays any attention to in normal circumstances. So that’s the first thing to bear in mind is that this is just a very important event for countries around the world, despite the political differences. The second thing to bear in mind is that it’s not quite just Iran’s turn to be the chair of the NAM. It was elected to be the chair at the last meeting in Cairo when Egypt held the chairmanship. So what this means is—and I think what people need to recognize is, despite the attempt by the Europeans, the United States, and the Israelis to isolate Iran politically, Iran remains a political force for other countries in the world. Indeed, it remains a legitimate nation, and therefore won election to being the chair of this Non-Aligned meeting.

JAY: Which is a real statement by these countries at a time when there’s being—war is being threatened against Iran.

PRASHAD: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, when the Cairo meeting was held, there was already pressure against Iran. You know, this pressure against Iran is now almost seven years old in terms of trying to create the sanctions regime that isolates Iran economically and, of course, politically. So despite the fact of this pressure, countries like India, countries like Egypt, all these countries, at the time very friendly to the United States, nonetheless agreed to put forward Iran as the next chair of the NAM meeting.

JAY: And let me read off a list of some of the heads of state that are expected at these meetings. So I’ll just go through a list here. So, first of all, Iran, of course, is going to be represented by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. North Korea, Kim Yong-nam is going, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, an American ally. Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, not an American ally. Sudan President Omar al-Bashir. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. Tunisia, the foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem. Azerbaijan, the president. Egypt, the new president, Mohamed Morsi. Libya, foreign minister. The South African foreign minister. Lebanese president. The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh. And even Australia’s sending an observer delegation. And, of course, there are many more that will be represented, but maybe not at such a senior level.

So this is a slap in the face of this campaign to isolate Iran.

PRASHAD: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the person you left off the list who I think is important to mark is the deputy foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. Prince Abdulaziz is going to be in attendance, you know, a very senior member of the royal family.

That means that all these countries are essentially thumbing their noses at Washington and at Tel Aviv. You know, in Washington there have been many statements trying to make the secretary-general of the United Nations stop his trip to Tehran. And indeed Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has also called upon Mr. Ban Ki-moon to not go to Tehran. But Mr. Ban has quite correctly said that it is the place of the UN Secretary-General to go to the Non-Aligned Movement meeting. And, in fact, he proposes to have a conversation, a dialog with the Iranians. So I think this—just the fact of the meeting being held in Tehran despite the agenda, the fact that everybody is coming ,the fact that there is this event happening, the first major international event in Tehran since 1997, when Iran hosted the organization of Islamic communities meeting—so this itself is a very important thing to bear in mind.

JAY: This reminds me back to the OAS meetings a few months ago, when the entire Latin America said they wanted Cuba to attend the meetings and sort of issued notice that they weren’t going to have meetings in the future without Cuba, in spite of American objections. And both that and, of course, the Non-Aligned meetings is—this seems to be a reflection of some lack of leverage the Americans have over these countries that perhaps they used to.

PRASHAD: Well, frankly, I interact quite a bit with people at the ambassadorial level from many of these countries, people who are involved in the NAM network, and the fact is that many of them will tell you quite candidly that they are mainly afraid of the United States but don’t admire U.S. foreign policy. In other words, they don’t take seriously this form of, you know, what you might consider a, you know, suffocation of countries around the world, whether it’s Cuba in the Western Hemisphere or it’s Iran. You know, these ambassadors look at this form of foreign policy as very destabilizing, very dangerous, and when they have to make allowances for the United States, it’s often simply as a consequence of U.S. power, not as a consequence of their admiration for the kind of diplomacy that the United States does. And I think this is also a point that people don’t often consider, which is that the United States diplomatic service has for a very long time lost the faith of diplomats elsewhere, who don’t—who look at United States and say, these people are simply not serious.

JAY: Okay. Well, we’ll come back and talk, I hope, later next week, Vijay, about after the meetings are over, and we’ll kind of talk about the declaration and what, if anything, came out of the meetings, although I suppose, just as a final question, I guess it’s really at this point less about anything that actually happens at the meetings other than the fact that what’s big is that the meeting’s just taking place.

PRASHAD: Well, that is indeed the most important thing. Of course, the principal issue that is going to divide the NAM is the question of Syria. And here what’s already been put on the table is that the Turks may not come to the NAM meeting. There is a great divide that is there in the NAM. The Indian delegation is trying to hold all the sides together to create some kind of consensus statement. The pre-meeting of the NAM, which was held in Egypt, fell apart on the question of Syria. And I think this is going to be the issue that actually defines whether the NAM is able to go forward into the 21st century with some energy, that is, if they can come up with a common and, I think, humane solution for Syria. If they cannot do that, they will fail.

JAY: What’s the nature of the difference? If Turkey is sort of leading the charge on one side, who’s on the other? And what’s the difference?

PRASHAD: Well, the fact is, at the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting in Egypt that was the pre-meeting for the NAM, the Saudis, Turks, and Qataris wanted a strong condemnation of the Syrian government. Well, the Syrians who are also part of the NAM were able to block the strong condemnation. So at the very most what they got was they got an affirmation of the so-called Annan Plan. But between the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting and this Tehran meeting, Kofi Annan has resigned, largely because the kind of context for his plan was not possible.

Now a very capable diplomat has come into the scene, Mr. Brahimi, who is a diplomat from Algeria. He has been a UN envoy in Afghanistan and in Iraq and was the principal architect of the peace agreement in Lebanon. So Brahimi is a very senior, very respected diplomat, and it is really the question of whether the NAM is going to be able to create the policy space for Brahimi to act on Syria. They don’t have to come up with a solution; they simply have to come up with a mechanism to make Brahimi’s position in Syria credible and strong. Mr. Annan was not strengthened by any external entity. So this is the really important test of the NAM meeting. Will they leave divided? Or will they have something to give Mr. Brahimi?

JAY: Well, if Iran, the Saudis, and the Turks could talk to each other and come to any kind of a scenario here, I mean, that really would be the major players, wouldn’t it?

PRASHAD: Well, the Egyptians had proposed at the organization of the Islamic conference for something called a contact group, in which they’d included the Turks, the Saudis, the Iranians, the Egyptians, you know, people on both sides of the Syrian question. And all have agreed to be part of Mohamed Morsi’s contact group. And they are going to try to put forward something at the NAM. You know, I believe that the Turks will eventually come to Tehran, and I’m very, very—you know, I hope very much that the contact group is able to be one pillar of a solution for Syria, just as Mr. Brahimi will be another.

JAY: Okay. Well, we’ll come back to you after the meetings are over and we’ll see if this evolved. Thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.

PRASHAD: Thank you so much.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the “Donate” button over here, ’cause if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.


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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.