08/31/2012 06:23 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

At the NAM Summit in Tehran, 'It's the Economy, Stupid!'

With the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit in the books, Iran has finished hosting its largest international conference in over three decades. Iranian officials sought to make a case that it is not the "international community" that has problems with the Islamic Republic, but rather a U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" that is held together through pressure. The Obama administration essentially conceded this point by trying to dissuade various leaders from attending the summit.

So, did Iran's diplomatic showcase succeed or backfire? That depends on one's metric of success. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made his first visit to Tehran -- but he broached sensitive topics with his Iranian interlocutors, including Iran's nuclear program, its objectionable comments about Israel, and human rights problems in the Islamic Republic. Egypt's newly-minted President Mohamed Morsi made the first visit by an Egyptian head of state in over three decades -- but he bluntly told Iranian decision-makers that they are on the wrong side of the fight in Syria.

The Iranian regime will try to absorb these embarrassments, combine them with high-profile photo-ops and micromanaged media coverage, and split the difference. More than diplomatic clout, Iran's true metric of success was financial. It likely succeeded in using the summit to build international economic openings that will help forestall instability. These openings sustain the system of crony capitalism and political patronage that has long been a pillar of the regime.

Unprecedented U.S.-led sanctions seek to cripple the Iranian economy, and a key focus of Iran's diplomacy at the summit was finding new ways to remain afloat, buoyed by oil money. Indeed, all politics is local. This Iranian government is comprised of survivors who manage to muddle through, and if past is prologue, they have achieved just enough to sustain a familiar status quo: neither major success, nor major collapse.

Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council in Washington, DC.

This article first appeared in Folha de S.Paulo, the largest circulation newspaper in Brazil.