A Case of Iranian Whispers at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran

As Iran lays out the red carpet for dozens of world leaders at the NAM summit, the foreign-press pack has been starved of real news

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Vahid Salemi / AP

An expert-level meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement takes place in Tehran on Aug. 26, 2012

Every hour there seems to be a new rumor that sweeps through the pressroom at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference, which began in earnest on Tuesday in north Tehran. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is bowing to Israeli pressure and not coming! False. Iran will offer high-level diplomats a tour of its Parchin military facility — the controversial base International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were denied access to earlier this year! False, though there are still unconfirmed reports that on his way to a cultural tour to Isfahan, Ban might stop for a tour of another Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz. Mysterious North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is coming! With his wife! And they have a kid! False, false and false. Though there was a North Korean representative wandering through the morning-coffee crowd in a gray suit. Welcome to the 16th summit of the nonaligned nations — all 120 of them. The stars of this crowd have yet to arrive: Ban, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the hosts, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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In the meantime, the hordes of press have been focusing on the second-tier celebrities. On Tuesday afternoon, the people of the minute were the families of Iran’s three slain nuclear scientists. The mangled cars where they were killed, allegedly by Israeli car bombs, were displayed outside the conference entrance. And, in case you didn’t get the message, the pressroom was located down a long hallway enshrined to the dozens of “Iranians killed by terrorists.” “As soon as the high powers see that we are becoming more and more independent, they terrorize our scientists, impose sanctions and try to keep us down,” the father of one slain scientists told the packed pressroom. “If the images that you show people and the articles that you write really carry the rightful message that we are telling you, then you have done your job well … But if you don’t be truthful in your reporting, then I’m going to leave you in your own conscience and your God.”

After the families departed and stories had been filed, the press resumed its favorite rumor-mill game: A Russian delegation is coming! True, they have a “special representative,” though for obvious reasons — NAM was created in 1961 by countries wishing to show Cold War independence from the U.S. and the USSR — Moscow isn’t part of the club. An American delegation is coming! Given the current state of Iran-U.S. relations, definitely false.

The rumormongering is partly a product of Tehran’s success. It carefully orchestrated a conference without drama. The resolution was agreed upon in record time with little, if any, dissent. And there’s such a lack of, well, debate, that after the first spate of stories about the content of the agreement there hasn’t been much else to report.

Tehran is also deserted. Wanting to focus on the summit, which will involve more than 7,000 people and more foreign press than Iran has seen in decades — 1,600 of them by some counts, with more than 40 reporters arriving with the Indian Prime Minister alone — Iranians were given an official week’s holiday and encouraged to split. Which means that most places are closed, traffic is light, and the city is devoid of much of its hustle and bustle — making it seem ironically lonely for a conference aimed at showing how Iran isn’t isolated in the world.

So, in the absence of drama and dissent, with only one press conference a day and the main stars not arriving for another 48 hours, journalists have kept busy doing what they do: gossiping.

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