From left, Iranian chief of Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi attend a summit of the Nonaligned Movement in Tehran, Iran. (AP/Mehr News Agency)

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi delivered prominent and surprisingly effective messages at last week’s summit of Non-Aligned Movement nations in Tehran — despite Washington’s unease at their even attending the Iran-hosted event.

Washington’s initial reaction was praise for how Morsi spoke strongly against Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, calling for him to step down. Ban also won praise when he called on Tehran to adhere to Security Council resolutions limiting Iran’s nuclear program. He described as “utterly wrong” those [read summit host Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] who deny “historical acts such as the Holocaust” and challenge Israel’s right to exist.

Forgotten for the moment were State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s well-publicized Aug. 16 remarks that the secretary general’s attendance “does not send a good signal” because Iran was “in violation of so many of its international obligations and posing a threat to neighbors, et cetera.” Nuland also warned “other participating nations” that Tehran was “a strange place and an inappropriate place for this meeting.”

The idea that the U.S. government knows best about what other sovereign countries should do in their relations with Washington’s enemies — and doubts foreign leaders can handle themselves on the international stage — reminds me of the worst of American bullying during the Cold War. Back then, U.S. leaders warned members of the Non-Aligned Movement against having any dealings with the Soviet Union or communists in general.

The “you are with us or against us” attitude was last employed with negative effect by President George W. Bush.

But as Morsi and Ban have shown, such leaders can take care of themselves. In this case it was before an audience of more than 100 countries that make up two-thirds of the U.N. membership, including leaders of India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Qatar and Pakistan.

Washington, in fact, should pay attention to all that Morsi and Ban said — not just what it agrees with.

Morsi spoke of Syria’s “repressive regime, which has lost its legitimacy” and the need for a unified opposition. He also said that those causing the bloodshed “will be held accountable” and “this bloodshed cannot come to an end without active intervention by all of us.” His words rocketed around the world, were hailed by the Syrian opposition and left an indelible black mark on Iran’s support of Assad.

Morsi also, however, linked the Palestinians with the Syrian people as “currently struggling valiantly and impressively in pursuit of freedom, justice and human dignity,” saying his country will support “any Palestinian move at the General Assembly or the Security Council to seek U.N. membership.”

He moved into the controversial area of nuclear weapons, noting Egypt’s long-standing role in seeking a conference on a nuclear-free Middle East, pointing out that only Israel, which does not acknowledge its nuclear weapons stockpile, has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Morsi also repeated Egypt’s support of Iran’s right to “peaceful use of atomic energy,” meaning the reprocessing of nuclear materials, but added that it should only be done “provided that it completely respects international obligations imposed by the NPT in this domain,” which means it does not lead to a weapon and its facilities are open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ban’s speech was no less forthright. “Those who provide arms to either side in Syria are contributing to the misery,” he said, quite aware that Iran was aiding Assad and Qatar was supplying the opposition.

He called nuclear proliferation the most serious threat to global peace and urged Iran, as the new Non-Aligned leader, to build confidence in the “peaceful nature” of its program by “fully complying with the relevant Security Council resolutions and thoroughly cooperating with the IAEA.”

He also called on all parties “to stop provocative and inflammatory threats,” clearly a reference to possible attacks on Iran’s nuclear complex being publicly debated not only within Israel but in the United States. “A war of words can quickly spiral into a war of violence,” he said.

But the secretary general’s most impressive — and for Iranians the most controversial — words were delivered during his lecture at Tehran’s School of International Relations before an audience of Tehran officials, professors and students.

“I believe Iran would benefit from fully drawing on the activism of civil society,” he said. Iran is known for arresting dissidents and particularly students. “Unleashing the potential of civil society means accepting its diversity of views, even when these views might seem challenging [to] authorities,” he said.

Ban added, “Social activism and critics should never be conflated with national security and seen as a threat to the society or the state.” Referring to life in South Korea when it was under a military dictatorship, he recalled how those opposed to Seoul’s harsh government were accused of harming national security.

Addressing his audience directly, he said, “I encourage Iran to allow greater space for different and divergent perspectives to play out in public debate,” particularly during next year’s presidential election. “That is why I have urged the authorities during my visit this time to release opposition leaders, human rights defenders, journalists and social activists to create the conditions for free expression and open debate.”

Who can say how long the effects of Morsi’s or Ban’s words will last in Iran. But no one can deny it was important for them to have gone there. They spoke for values Americans believe in — free speech and a full exchange of ideas — before those with whom Washington disagrees.

And they did it on their own.

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