08/27/2012 04:11 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

Tehran Visit Places Ban Ki-moon Between the Hammer and the Anvil

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has placed himself between the hammer and the anvil by declaring his resolve to visit Tehran, where the Non-Aligned Summit is being held this week. The summit coincides with the Republican Party Convention in Tampa, Florida, where the party will officially nominate Mitt Romney for president of the United States.

The presence of Ban in Tehran will provide abundant matter for the American and world media, both in the case of a determined, frank and stern stance on Iran's leadership being adopted or in that of avoiding a public confrontation with it. Of course, what Ban has in mind is to work towards diplomatic détente between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel in order to prevent the tension between them from leading to an explosion. Yet the most that he could achieve at this level is temporary appeasement, and perhaps buying some time. Indeed, neither is the Iranian leadership likely to backtrack on its clinging to enriching uranium at a high rate, nor is the Israeli leadership likely to accept a nuclear Iran. Ban may be of help to President Barack Obama if he succeeds at driving the Iranian nuclear issue away from an explosion and away from the spotlight. Indeed, the Israelis are exerting extreme pressure on Obama to have the United States carry out preemptive strikes against Iranian nuclear sites, based on the timetable for enrichment and the principle of "before it is too late."

The Republicans are divided over whether or not they want the United States to get involved in military action against sites in Iran. Some of them are warning Obama of the consequences of falling into the Israeli trap, while others are warning him of the consequences of drifting into the Iranian trap. Ban Ki-moon may calmly try to clear the path for a very important matter sought by the Iranian leadership, namely establishing special bilateral relations with the United States. Ban will not pretend to be the channel to Washington, but he does have the ability to shift things away from the fast track to confrontation on the nuclear issue with Western nations, and Washington in particular, and drive them towards another opportunity at another meeting under some umbrella and under one justification or another, in such a way as to resume and move forward with negotiations between Tehran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. That is if Tehran were to provide him with such ammunition, and it will most likely do precisely that, because it too needs to buy time for reasons not exclusively connected to the nuclear issue, but also to the events taking place in Syria and in Lebanon, which are leading to a repositioning in the processes involved in defining the new regional order. And here lies the other danger that comes with Ban going to Tehran, as his presence there would provide Iran's leadership with legitimacy and break its isolation, at a time when it is going to excesses in inciting action against anyone who would support the Syrian opposition, considering the fall of the Syrian regime to represent a red line, as well as at a time when the Secretary-General's Deputy at the Security Council declares that Iran supplying weapons to Syria represents a violation of binding Security Council resolutions.

Iran's leadership wants the Non-Aligned Summit -- of which it will assume the presidency on the basis of rotation within the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which include 120 countries -- to inaugurate the restoration of this leadership's international standing, and to represent an international platform through which it would publicize whatever it wishes. It wants the Tehran Summit to be the first step in responding to the Mecca Summit, which was held last week as an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and issued stances supporting "the Syrian people" in the face of the tanks of the regime in Damascus and its planes which are bombing its own people. Indeed, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ali Khamenei, is very angry and very determined to prevent the fall of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, because he and his regime are vital to the regime of the mullahs in Tehran, and for them to reach the Mediterranean Sea and Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, the Supreme Leader has ordered the commander of the Quds Force, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), to "intensify its campaign of terror attacks" against those who support the Syrian opposition, considering for Assad to remain in power to be a vital matter for the security of the Republic of Iran and the protection of its interests.

Ban Ki-moon had previously said in an interview with Al-Hayat that Bashar Al-Assad had "lost his legitimacy," and in fact Ban has always condemned the regime's practices against its people and held it responsible for the greater part of the cycle of violence taking place. Yet Ban has never frankly addressed the issue of the practical support, in the form of funds and weapons, provided by Tehran to Damascus, by which it is violating the Security Council resolution banning weapons exports from Iran to any party in Syria or in Lebanon. Similarly, he has never criticized the Islamic Republic, save by suggestion, for arming Hezbollah in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions. Indeed, he has always sought not to "burn all bridges" with Tehran. Perhaps his most acute criticism came a week ago when he condemned Iranian statements made at the highest levels of leadership against Israel as an entity, in a statement which came as a prelude to his decision to participate in the Tehran Summit.

The insistence of Israel's leadership and of American Jewish organizations on embarrassing Ban Ki-moon and demanding that he boycott the Non-Aligned summit because it is being held in Tehran has led to the opposite result. These pressures have forced Ban Ki-moon to weigh things out, taking into consideration the fact that not going to Tehran would be interpreted as submitting to the desires and pressures of Israel and the United States.

From the onset, it would have been difficult for the Secretary-General of the United Nations to boycott a summit attended by 120 nations, regardless of where it is held or of how great or small is the number of heads of state participating in it. Indeed, he has taken part in every summit ever since he took office. He may have been thinking about the possibility of protesting Iran's stances by boycotting it, but this public Israeli and American campaign has driven him to be forced to go to Tehran, so as not to seem like a puppet or appear weak in the face of pressures.

There is also the fact that Ban Ki-moon believes that the Non-Aligned Summit in Tehran would provide him with the opportunity to influence the Iranian leadership on its home soil. He is determined to convince Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of engaging in the process of looking for solutions in the nuclear issue, in its relationship with Israel, in the Syrian issue and in that of Lebanon. He believes it to be his moral duty to try, even if he were to fail, which he most likely will, and he is well aware of this -- because he has been observing and following everything coming out of Tehran, and because he realizes that the Iranian leadership will not back down and will not accept anything he might put forward.

It is precisely for this reason that criticism has been raining down on Ban Ki-moon from every side. Indeed, by holding intensive meetings with the highest authorities in Tehran, he would be breaking the isolation that surrounds them and granting them legitimacy for nothing in return, at least according to predictions. Ban thinks in a different way. He believes that he will not lose, even if his attempts to convince Iran's leadership were to meet with complete failure. In his view, even in the case of failure, the weight of isolation will increase on the leadership in Tehran.

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that Tehran will not discredit Ban Ki-moon completely, but rather will most likely "throw him a bone" to suggest that it is responding, while it would in fact be delaying and procrastinating in order to buy time. And time is in its favor at the end of the day, whether on the nuclear issue, the Syrian-Lebanese issue or the issue of the interior. Indeed, in buying time, Tehran is wagering on its knowledge that Barack Obama also needs to buy time, and that American public opinion does not want a confrontation with Iran under any circumstances. It is wagering on the lack of interest of the United States, as a government or as a people, in what is happening at the domestic level in terms of repressing the opposition, doing away with personal rights and violating human rights. Its analysis is that America, at both the official and the popular level, is not ready for a serious battle in Syria, no matter the extent reached by the massacres, and it has decided that its alliance with Russia -- and also China -- towards Syria will certainly lead to the defeat of the current alliance between the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), headed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) with effective participation from Turkey.

In fact, Tehran is also wagering on Turkey hesitating to make a final decision regarding the Syrian issue. Its considerations focus on "victory" by maintaining the regime in Damascus and by inflicting "defeat" on the United States and on Tehran's rivals in the region.

Indeed, anything that could represent ammunition for Tehran to prolong the current situation in Syria would be in its favor, regardless of whether achieving this would entail a civil war or division. Ban Ki-Moon's visit to Tehran falls under the formula of being used to prolong things and to buy time.

During Ban Ki-moon's visit, Tehran will be hosting his Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman -- the former U.S. assistant secretary of state and the man formerly in charge of the issue of Lebanon. Feltman had been the subject of repeated attacks from Iranian officials and from their ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

Lebanon lies today in the eye of the storm, and is likely to collapse if it were to remain outside the margin of priorities and continue to represent an arena for detonating crises for the regime in Damascus and for Tehran, as well as for Moscow, which has become Damascus and Tehran's ally against the Syrian opposition and those who would stand with it.

If, on the other hand, Ban were to seem like a messenger between Washington and Tehran, or between the Israelis and the Iranians, by leaping over the issues of Syria and Lebanon and ignoring Iran's domestic situation, then he would find himself in a predicament. He must not just carry with him Iran's violations of resolutions regarding the nuclear issue or the statements he condemned for being offensive to Jews and to Israel, but should also confront Tehran with its violations of Security Council resolutions through its military relationship with Damascus and with Hezbollah. He should also try to meet with leaders of the Iranian opposition.

Ban Ki-moon's speech at the Non-Aligned Summit must be bold and frank, just as the speech of the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Nassir Al-Nasser, must be firm and clear. They both represent the international community, which has made clear its discontent regarding Iran's policy towards Syria and Lebanon, and it is time to confront the Islamic Republic of Iran with criticism and condemnation on its home soil. Only in this way can they both avoid falling into Iran's trap though the vehicle of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The language of red lines is becoming increasingly repetitive, from Barack Obama speaking of a red line that would force him to reconsider his hesitant stances if chemical weapons were to be utilized in Syria, to what has been said of an Iranian red line when it comes to Bashar Al-Assad remaining in power, and up to a Russian red line that shifts between Islamist "takfiris" and national interests.

Ban Ki-moon enjoys a reputation of moral clarity and of boldness to criticize and to cling to principles. Ban's visit to Tehran represents a major test for him. It is a dangerous visit, because it places him between the hammer and the anvil. But it is up to him to make use of this visit to clarify things for others, rather than fall into the trap of political cunning and find himself a partner in buying time over the bodies of Syrians, the future of the Lebanese and the ambitions of Iranians. He is, in practice, a player in drafting the new regional order in the Middle East.