09/05/2012 05:19 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Ban in Tehran: 'Fair and Balanced'?

In opening Tuesday's General Assembly debate on Syria, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon savored an I-told-you-so moment. Having defied demands from Israel and its American supporters that he boycott last week's summit meeting in Tehran of the Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM, he could report with relish, "I engaged in frank dialogue with the Iranian leadership on a number of important issues, including the situation in Syria."

Ban's "frank dialogue," in fact, went beyond the Iranian leadership, to the Iranian public and to the leaders of the self-styled non-aligned. Combined with the remarkable début on the global stage of Egypt's first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who sharply criticized his Iranian hosts' embattled ally in Damascus, Ban clearly aimed to use his visit to discredit the calls for confrontation last week from Tel Aviv and Tampa -- and to underscore prime minister Winston Churchill's famous advice to President Eisenhower that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."

It was always a stretch to think that Israel -- perhaps the only country subject to as much criticism from international bodies as Iran -- would be able to dissuade the United Nations secretary-general from attending the NAM summit. A secretary-general has to go where leaders of two-thirds of his member states are congregating.

Deferring to Israeli concerns, the United States ritually protested Ban's plan to attend. But none of its European partners in the face-off over Iran's nuclear program made any objection. The notion that the secretary-general's appearance at the NAM summit would only "legitimize" the host country and erode the diplomatic quarantine with which Iran's adversaries hope to isolate it was simply not credible.

Even the Saudis -- who seem just as intent as the Israelis on weakening Iran -- sent a high-level delegation led by the son of aging King Abdullah. And given prime minister Bibi Netanyahu's overt support for President Obama's opponent in the U.S. presidential election, the president's backers could wonder whether the controversy had been fabricated to delegitimize him.

Iran could indeed legitimately claim that the turnout of 36 heads of state and government, and high-ranking officials from another 80, demonstrated that it is not a pariah state. True, at least one attendee is himself a pariah -- Sudan's Omar Bashir is dodging an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court.

But the others will be perfectly free to show up for this month's U.N. General Assembly debate in New York, including neighbors in whom America is deeply invested like Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, Pakistan's Arif Zardari, India's Manmohan Singh, and Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki.

These leaders were not in Tehran to encourage Iranian ambition, but to affirm the legitimacy of the nonaligned movement itself. Its very existence was long an irritant to U.S. policymakers, and Western commentators question why it didn't dissolve once the Cold War confrontation that gave it birth had ended. Of course, one of those Cold War alliances still exists, and eminently respectable leaders in the developing world evidently feel it is useful to maintain some structures of solidarity among themselves, just in case.

Iran benefited a bit from that solidarity in the summit's declaration, which endorsed Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program. The summit also decried the American campaign to press others to adopt Washington's draconian sanctions against Iran, which go far beyond the narrower sanctions mandated by the U.N. Security Council.

Manmohan Singh pointedly brought along a delegation of Indian businessmen looking to forge trade links for the future even as Europe severs its own. Still, the reality of American financial reach means that Western sanctions are having their intended effect of limiting Iran's economic relations, even if NAM governments don't formally adopt them.

Ban Ki-moon said nothing about the sanctions in his address to the summit. But he made clear to the assembled leaders, and his Iranian hosts, that the onus is on Iran "to build international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program... by fully complying with the relevant Security Council resolutions and thoroughly cooperating with the IAEA."

In a swipe at Israeli leaders' bellicose rhetoric, though, he demanded an end to "provocative and inflammatory threats. A war of words can quickly spiral into a war of violence." Ban pointed to the pending negotiations for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone -- not popular among Israeli conservatives either -- and reminded his listeners that "it was Iran itself, 38 years ago, that proposed the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East."

At that time, of course, Shah Reza Pahlevi's dictatorship seemed firmly in control of Iran, and Ban hinted that the country's progress since his overthrow has been partial at best. "The United Nations and the international community are fully behind the people of Iran in your long struggle for democracy and human rights," he told Iranian academics. "Many other human rights challenges remain: civil and political rights, due process, and discrimination against women and minorities."

Often rhetorically challenged, Ban Ki-moon has not always succeeded in rising above the conventions of U.N. politesse and the realities of big-power priorities to articulate the world community's interest persuasively and dispassionately. His Tehran trip was a rare tour de force that confounded his critics, struck the right balance, and hit all the right notes -- on nuclear weapons, on rights, and on Syria. No wonder he would recall it in his first appearance before his own U.N. assembly right after.