Tehran, Opposition Jostle for U.N. Chief's Ear

Tehran, Opposition Jostle for U.N. Chief's Ear

Wall Street Journal

28 August 2012

BEIRUT—The Islamic Republic of Iran and its various opposition group are competing to capitalize on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's first visit to Iran on Wednesday.

Mr. Ban is scheduled to be in Tehran until Friday to participate in this year's conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, which Iran is chairing and hosting. He is expected to meet with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other top Iranian officials.

Iran's government is portraying Mr. Ban's visit as a public-relations coup to showcase that Iran "is not isolated despite Western propaganda," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Tuesday.

For Iran's opposition groups, from the pro-democracy Green Movement to reformers and royalists, Mr. Ban's visit put the regime under the international spotlight—one they hope to steal in part to raise allegations of Iran's human-rights violations.

Israel and the U.S. lobbied for Mr. Ban to boycott the event. Mr. Ban's spokesman said last week that the secretary-general attends the NAM conference as part of his responsibilities to engage diplomatically with all countries.

Mr. Ban's agenda in Iran includes discussing the controversial nuclear program, terrorism, human rights and the conflict of in Syria, according to his spokesman. "I can assure you the secretary-general fully intends to discuss human rights with Iranian officials, including at the highest level," the spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said Tuesday.

In the past few days, the typically dormant and diverse opposition appeared united in a frenzy to force Mr. Ban to take a stand, in public and private, while he has the audience of Iran's top-level officials.

Kalameh, the official website of Green Movement opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, circulated a petition on Tuesday to collect 10,000 signature asking Mr. Ban to prioritize the harsh conditions of political prisoners.

"Because of your personal awareness of the facts, there is a high level of confidence that you will not forget or leave unaddressed the plight of our political prisoners," the son of former Shah Reza Pahlavi wrote in a letter to Mr. Ban this week that was also published on his personal website.

On social networking sites and Iranian blogs and websites, activists called on Tehran residents to chant from their rooftops "God is Great," and "Death to the Dictator" on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Ban will address Iran's record of human rights—among the thorniest issues for the regime—in any public format. Some analysts say he may choose the subtle route of private discussions but that would be seen, by Iran's critics, as a victory for the Islamic Republic.

"Ban Ki Moon has very significant leverage with the Iranian government, and if his approach is behind-the-scenes diplomacy, then he should play hardball. If he says it in an inconsequential way, it would do more harm than good," said Payam Akhavan, a former prosecutor at The Hague and founder of Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

The Non-Aligned Movement was founded in 1961 as a coalition of countries unaligned with the Cold War's superpowers. It has since morphed into an event where participating heads of states discuss topics from anti-Western ideology to poverty and oppression.

Iranian officials said Tuesday they are preparing for Mr. Ban's arrival, along with a delegation of U.N. diplomats, with a luncheon at the parliament with select lawmakers Wednesday.

Lawmaker Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi said the parliament's human-rights committee plans to ask Mr. Ban "serious and fundamental questions" about the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.

"If we want to start asking about the U.N.'s impartial actions against Iran, we will have a lot to discuss," said Mr. Zahedani, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.