Multilateral Diplomacy and Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Egypt's Mohamed Morsi greet each other at Non-Aligned Movement summit.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi greet each other at Non-Aligned Movement summit.

On Friday, the Nonaligned Movement handed Iran a significant foreign policy victory, unanimously declaring their support for Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program and condemning American efforts to push Iran to end its initiative.

The Nonaligned Movement was founded in the 1960s when many of the most influential leaders from recently decolonized countries and neutral countries from around the world, including Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito, Indonesia’s President Sukarno, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, came together to articulate a middle course between American and Soviet-alignment during the Cold War. Later, in the late 1970s, the group declared that its role was to ensure “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries” in their “struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc politics.”

After the end of the Cold War, the Nonaligned Movement struggled to redefine its mission. But with 120 members, the Nonaligned Movement is one of the largest associations of states outside of the United Nations. Its declaration thus likely complicates US efforts to paint Iran as a rogue nation flouting international norms and defying the will of the international community. It could be an important diplomatic victory for the government of Iran.

On a broader level, the Nonaligned Movement’s declaration also raises interesting questions about the importance of multilateral diplomacy in foreign policy. Traditionally, realists have asserted that the “will of the international community” carries little weight. For realists, the Nonaligned Movement’s declaration will have little real effect, as few of its member states are likely to take concrete steps to support Iran. What really matters is the willingness of individual states to act on their interests. If the United States (or more likely, Israel) believes that Iran’s nuclear program poses a threat to their national interest, they will move to address that threat regardless of the will of the international community.

For liberals, though, the Nonaligned Movement’s declaration presents more of a challenge. From this perspective, the will of the international community matters and should be taken seriously. The unanimous declaration would suggest that the United States and Israel are alone, out on a limb, with respect to their Iran policy. At a minimum, the United States would need to recalculate its position in an effort to garner greater international support for sanctions and other efforts to prevent Iran from securing nuclear weapons.

However, the constructivist position offers perhaps the most interesting take on recent developments in Iran. For constructivists, the Nonaligned Movement’s declaration has the potential to reframe the discussion on Iran, shifting the discourse from a focus on the development of nuclear weapons to civilian use of nuclear energy. Such a reframing would likely make the US position more difficult.

What do you think, does the Nonaligned Movement change US options with respect to Iran’s nuclear program? Do multilateral organizations like the Nonaligned Movement matter? Or are the realists right that only the national interest and the willingness of states to commit resources in pursuit of that interest matter?

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