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Ban Ki-moon’s Iran backlash

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is facing mounting criticism of his plan to travel next week to Tehran, where he will attend the 16th Non-Aligned Movement’s summit of developing countries and hold separate meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For weeks, the United States and Israel have been pleading with Ban ...

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is facing mounting criticism of his plan to travel next week to Tehran, where he will attend the 16th Non-Aligned Movement’s summit of developing countries and hold separate meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

For weeks, the United States and Israel have been pleading with Ban not to attend the summit, which will include visits by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, on the grounds that it would legitimize a regime that has violated U.N. sanctions and sponsored terrorism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly criticized Ban’s travel plans as a major mistake, saying: "Mr. Secretary-General, your place is not in Tehran."

Despite reservations by some of his top aides, Ban has decided to go to Tehran in the hopes of heading off a possible armed confrontation between Israel and Iran over the development of Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel is convinced is part of a covert effort to build a nuclear bomb.

Ban’s critics say the visit, however well-intentioned, will strengthen the hand of U.N.-bashers, undercut the Obama administration’s efforts to isolate the Iranian regime, and provide Iran’s leaders with a propaganda coup.

"I’m all for engagement, but Ban should not have gone," said Felice Gaer, the president of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, a U.N.-affiliated human rights organization. "He is giving a gift to the U.N. detractors."

Many of the top American Jewish organization have also weighed in. Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Conference, said Ban’s decision to visit Tehran was "deeply regrettable."

"The secretary-general of the United Nations should not lend credibility to the Iranian regime by attending this summit in Tehran," he said. "A rogue regime that violates human rights should be isolated and not counted among civilized nations. Iran should not enjoy the prestige of a visit of the head of the U.N."

Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, defended the visit, saying that the secretary-general is "fully aware of the sensitivities" and that he "can speak on behalf of the entire international community to make clear directly to the Iranian leadership what the world expects from Tehran and to encourage positive and constructive responses." Nesirky said not going "would be a missed opportunity."

U.N. officials say Ban was advised on the pros and cons of traveling to Iran but that he was personally committed to undertaking a peace initiative. They said that Netanyahu’s public appeal to Ban — delivered in what staffers viewed as a condescending tone — backfired, fortifying Ban’s resolve to go.

Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said, "I share concerns about Iran’s conduct and granting that government more legitimacy than it deserves." But he added that "it probably does make sense for him to go. Most of the constituent members [of the United Nations] are going to be there. He would run the risk of snubbing the entire Non-Aligned Movement, and I’m not sure that would make sense from an institutional point of view."

Ban will likely pay a "political cost" in the United States and Israel for going, Ibish observed. "He’s going to get criticism and people will hold it against him. But I wouldn’t say he will pay a heavy price. He’s been very sympathetic to the American and Israeli attitude, more sympathetic than some previous secretary-generals."

At the same time, Ibish said it makes perfect sense for anyone across the American political spectrum to criticize him. Ban has taken some serious hits, with the Washington Post editorial board knocking him for attending what they called a "bacchanal of nonsense" in Tehran. "I have always been a supporter of the United Nations," added Andrew Rosenthal, the New York Times‘ editorial page editor. "Despite its shortcoming, it has proven its worth again and again, from its role in the creation of Israel, to keeping the peace in countless global hotspots, to intervening in humanitarian crises…. That said, I was appalled that the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has decided to attend an international gathering in Iran, despite the vociferous objections of the United States. Mr. Ban can accomplish nothing with this trip beyond hindering efforts to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear weapons program."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy@columlynch

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