Special Report

The Return of the Non-Aligned Movement

A relic of the Cold War continues to interfere with Washington's ambitions.

By 6.27.06

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Set against the backdrop of decolonization and an international environment split between Cold War superpowers, both weak and newly independent states formed a bloc that became known as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). While essentially contradictory from its inception, it was not until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the Warsaw Pact that NAM became largely irrelevant in a seemingly tranquil and unipolar world. However, contemporary attempts to challenge America's global leadership have caused the organization to drastically improve its standing.

Between the 27th and 30th of May, the foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned countries met in Putrajaya, Malaysia. A 60-page "Final Document" produced at the recent meeting in Malaysia is worth exploring as it plainly illustrates both the ideology and goals of this increasingly influential organization. "Terrorism," the document notes in a statement likely aimed at the United States and Israel, "should not be equated with the legitimate struggle of people's under colonial or alien domination and foreign occupation." Palpably referring to the Bush administration, the NAM document affirms that among their objectives is to "oppose and condemn the categorization of countries as good and evil based on unilateral and unjustified criteria, and the adoption of the doctrine of pre-emptive attack."

The document also denounces the "politically motivated" promotion of democracy and the imposition of "unilateral economic sanctions," while defending such member nations as Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela. Perhaps most egregious of the stated methods of NAM is the call for solidarity with member states that have come under international pressure. Clearly a central subject of this pronouncement is the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, Tehran's influence was largely on display with the following call to:

Reject actions and measures... imposed or threatened to be imposed by any State against any Non-Aligned Country under the pretext of combating terrorism or to pursue its political aims, including by directly or indirectly categorizing them as terrorism sponsoring-States. They further totally reject the use of the term "axis of evil" by a certain State to target other states under the pretext of combating terrorism, as well as the unilateral preparation of lists accusing States of allegedly supporting terrorism, which... constitute on their part a form of psychological and political terrorism.

Along with Russia and China, the Non-Aligned Movement has been an obstacle to initiatives sought by the United States. As the Guardian proclaimed with satisfaction in a June 19 headline, "Iranian charm calls Bush's bluff." The article notes that while the Bush administration likes to claim that Tehran has become increasingly isolated, it is evident that Iran seems to draw more international sympathy than the United States. This is true to a large extent because NAM has decided that the organization will support Iran's right to develop nuclear energy. As a member of the Iranian parliament recently told the Iranian news agency IRNA, "the statement of the 116 members of NAM in support of Iran's right to access nuclear technology effectively negates rumors of the West having achieved a consensus against Iran."

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's early May trip to Southeast Asia was largely intended as a campaign to shape the opinion of some of the major players in NAM -- such as Indonesia and Malaysia -- with regards to Tehran's nuclear program. How much persuasion Ahmadinejad was forced to employ is uncertain, but one thing is clear: Iran's success in courting allies has only enforced its ambitions. Vahid Karimi of a government-funded Iranian think tank articulated the assessment that the changes in the Bush administration's approach to Tehran are a result of Iran's vast array of partnerships as he noted: "We are successful in building up relationships. That is why the American position is changing....That's why they want to talk to us now."

Washington's decision to engage Tehran has not only strengthened the perception that the Iranians have been diplomatically successful, but may also provide India and Pakistan -- both Non-Aligned countries -- with the belief that a pipeline joining the two countries with Iran would not be as objectionable to Washington as previously thought. Russian president Vladimir Putin recently revealed that he would like to see the state-dominated Gazprom assist in the construction of the proposed gas pipeline. Thus, the popular endorsement by NAM is reaping great rewards for Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs.

Iran is far from the first rogue state to look to the Movement for support against the United States in recent years. In the captured secret Iraqi documents revealing Moscow's possible provision to Baghdad of intelligence on U.S. operations early in the Iraq War, the matter of a United Nations resolution declaring the American-led invasion as illegal was covered at length. Then "Russian foreign minister [Igor Ivanov] propose[d] that Iraq coordinate with Arab countries and the non-aligned movement to demand the holding of a session of the [Security] Council." At the same time, the document states, "It was agreed that Malaysia, acting in the name of the non-aligned movement, will present a demand for an emergency session of the Security Council on the American aggression against Iraq." Presently, Tehran seems to be relying on much the same strategy of isolating the United States by acquiring the support of NAM.

However, as State Department spokesman Sean McCormack accurately suggested during his June 15 press briefing, NAM countries are not always unified in their approaches to international issues. McCormack noted: "Individual national statements from India, Singapore, South Africa, Ghana, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador" were all supportive of the United States in regards to Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He added that Syria and Cuba were the only NAM states not to express concerns over Iran's nuclear program. While this all may be true, as the spokesman should know quite well, this is far from indicative of the organization's comprehensive impact on global events.

NAM has come down recently on the opposite side of the United States on a number of significant issues. The organization was vital to the success of the establishment of the new UN Human Rights Council, which features among its members Cuba and Saudi Arabia. It has been widely predicted that one of the matters the new body will take up -- the United States is not a member -- is the issue of the detention of terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. In fact, one of the demands expressed in the sixty page "Final Document" from the late May Malaysia meeting was the "return [of] the territory now occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base to Cuban sovereignty."

The Non-Aligned Movement has also intensified its calls for Puerto Rican independence. Just below an expression of solidarity with the extreme minority of Puerto Ricans who seek independence, the aforementioned NAM document stated that the group agreed to request that "the colonialist countries pay full compensation for the economic, social and political consequences of their occupation." The Movement was also instrumental in the June 14 approval of a Cuban sponsored draft resolution by the UN Special Committee on Decolonization expressing "deep concern over the intimidation, repression and other violent acts committed in the last few months against Puerto Rican pro-independence leaders and encourages an investigation into such acts."

Such measures are likely to be increasingly successful in the future as NAM will soon launch its own "non-aligned news network" (NNN). While the Malaysian information minister -- the network will be based in Kuala Lumpur -- expressed his strong desire to establish a "credible news agency," several NAM members see this as an opportunity to counter what they view as Western propaganda.

Morteza Granghadt of Iran's IRNA recently stated that "western media wages war against developing countries using the media … NNN is a good example of how we could use new information technology to respond to this threat." Syria's information minister expressed similar sentiments. However, it was Ernesto Lopez Dominguez, the president of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, who was victorious in his duplicity. Dominguez assailed the lack of transparency in western news organizations as he disingenuously offered: "Disinformation is silent and continuous terrorism. It qualifies as mental genocide, as it deprives audiences from ideas and arguments on key issues." Regrettably, this is the voice that will be driving NAM for the following three years as Cuban President Fidel Castro assumes the Chair of the organization in September.

Cuba's attainment of the chairmanship of NAM will coincide with a summit of the organization's leaders in Havana scheduled to begin on September 11. Ahmadinejad has already been invited, and there have been talks between Fidel Castro and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe about the latter receiving an advisory role in the organization. With the return to prominence to the Non-Aligned Movement, Iran has found comfort, Cuba prestige, and the United States finds itself once again confronted by those who seek excuses for their failures and legitimacy for their despotism.

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About the Author

Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.