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Ban Ki Moon in Iran for Nonaligned Movement's annual meeting: Meeting with top Iranian leaders

04:30 PM Aug 29, 2012

TEHRAN — Making his first visit to Iran as United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon met face-to-face with four members of Iran’s hierarchy on Wednesday, including the supreme leader, sessions that Mr. Ban’s spokesman described as “very serious meetings” that addressed his concerns about the disputed Iranian nuclear program, the Syria conflict, human rights problems in Iran and what he called its objectionable comments about Israel.

Iran’s state news media, which have described Mr. Ban’s visit as a repudiation of American and Israeli efforts to isolate Iran, also reported on the meetings but framed them differently, focusing on Mr. Ban’s gratitude for the invitation, their shared goal of resolving the Syrian conflict and Iran’s complaints about big-power meddling in Syria — a reference to efforts by the United States and its allies to topple President Bashar al-Assad, a strategic ally of Iran.

There was no mention in Iranian accounts of Mr. Ban’s criticism of Iran’s human rights record or the comments about Israel by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others, who refer to Israel as the Zionist entity and have described it as a cancerous tumor that should be eradicated. Iranian leaders have frequently denounced Israel’s threats to attack Iran.

The competing accounts of Mr. Ban’s visit came on the first day of a three-day visit to the Nonaligned Movement’s annual meeting, which Iran is hosting as president until 2015 under a three-year presidential rotation system in the 120-member group, the biggest single bloc in the 193-member General Assembly. Mr. Ban decided to attend the meeting despite calls by the United States and Israel to boycott it because Iran is the host.

Mr. Ban’s exact itinerary has not been disclosed, and confusion quickly arose upon his arrival here over whether, and when, he would speak directly to the foreign press here. Iranian officials said he would give a news conference before he departs on Friday.

Martin Nesirky, Mr. Ban’s chief spokesman, told reporters that Mr. Ban had detailed and extensive meetings with the Parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, followed by President Ahmadinajed, Ayatollah Khamenei and Saeed Jalili, who is the highest ranking national security official. Mr. Jalili has been the main negotiator in Iran’s nuclear dispute with the so-called P5-plus-1 powers — the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany.

Mr. Ban expressed regret that little progress had been achieved since the talks resumed in April, and told his hosts that Iran “needed to take concrete steps and prove to the world its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes,” Mr. Nesirky said. Iran has denied Western and Israeli accusations that its uranium enrichment program is a cover to develop nuclear weapons.

On Syria, Mr. Nesirky said, the secretary general expressed opposition to further militarization of the conflict and had asked Iranian leaders to use their influence on the Syrian government to halt the violence. Mr. Ban also told his hosts that Iran “has an important role to play and be part of a solution here,” Mr. Nesirky said. He declined to specify whether Mr. Ban had reiterated in private to the Iranians his public demand that Mr. Assad resign.

Mr. Nesirky said the secretary general told President Ahmadinejad that “the human rights situation in Iran remains a source of concern. Fundamental civil and political rights should be respected.” And in both his meetings with the president and supreme leader, the spokesman said, Mr. Ban “strongly objected to recent remarks from Iranian officials denying the Holocaust and Israel’s right to exist. Such remarks should be condemned by all.”

Asked to characterize the responses of the hosts, Mr. Nesirky said: “These have been very serious meetings and extremely detailed meetings. And of course both sides listened to each other.” He said the secretary general had “conveyed extremely clearly and in no uncertain terms what the expectations of the international community are on all these questions.”

Earlier Wednesday, news accounts by Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency and other state media on Mr. Ban’s visit focused primarily on the Syria conflict and Mr. Ban’s positive remarks about Iran’s importance in the region. They also quoted Mr. Ban as thanking Iran for hosting nearly two million refugees from neighboring Afghanistan.

The Iranian accounts also quoted Mr. Larijani as accusing the United States and its allies of bullying and big-power interference not only in Syria but elsewhere in the Middle East.

“Unfortunately some of the major countries are constantly acting in a provocative way in the region and creating a kind of disorder in the region,” Mr. Larijani was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Fars News Agency after his meeting with Mr. Ban. “We have our own opinions but we contribute to the establishment of peace in the region.”

Mr. Larijani was further quoted as saying that “Iran always supports democracy in the region” and has supported the anti-authoritarian uprisings in Tunisia and Libya. He also voiced support for anti-government protesters in Bahrain. However, he was quoted as saying, “in Syria some major countries and some regional countries have not made it possible for the establishment of deeper democracy and this is a mistake”.

At the Nonaligned conference, where Mr. Ban was to join heads of states and kings on Thursday in order to listen to a speech by Ayatollah Khamenei, Syria was being discussed behind closed doors.

According to diplomats requesting anonymity who were present in the meeting, the Syrian deputy-foreign minister Ramzi Ezzodin gave a fiery speech, attacking Turkey and saying the country had opened its borders for terrorists who wanted to enter Syria.

Iran proposed to form a committee in which Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq and Lebanon would try to find a solution for the Syrian crisis, an influential member of parliament was quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency as saying.

Thomas Erdbrink reported from Tehran, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

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