UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has defended his controversial visit to Iran, saying on Friday that he had used this week's trip to push hard for human rights and transparency from Tehran over its nuclear programme.
"I believe in the power of diplomacy and I believe in dialogues and I believe in engagement. This is exactly what I did during my visit to Tehran," Ban told Reuters on a stopover in Dubai before flying back to U.N. headquarters in New York.
While conceding he had not always been satisfied with the responses of Iranian leaders he spoke to this week, he rejected accusations by the United States and Israel that he had been playing into Tehran's hands by attending an international summit which Iran used to raise its diplomatic profile.
"I think that it should not have been controversial," he said. "As a secretary-general of the United Nations, I have a mandate to engage with all the member states of the United Nations."
Making the first visit by a U.N. chief to Iran since his predecessor travelled there six years ago, Ban attended the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of 120 mostly developing nations. Among these were senior ministers from Syria's embattled government who, he said, agreed to consider his request for greater access for international aid workers.
Isolated by international economic sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme, and unpopular among many states for its support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war, Iran used the NAM summit to present an image of diplomatic power - to its own people, as well as the rest of the world.
Before the summit, Washington made clear that it wanted Ban to boycott the event. "Iran is going to manipulate this opportunity and the attendees to try to deflect attention from its own failings," a State Department spokeswoman said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also urged Ban to cancel, calling his trip a "big mistake", Israeli media said. Netanyahu sees Iran, and a nuclear programme which Tehran insists is for civilian use, as a threat to Israel's existence.
Ban appeared to go out of his way in Tehran to avoid being seen as endorsing Iranian policies. On Thursday, he discomfited his hosts by publicly denouncing as "outrageous" Iranian threats against Israel and claims that the Holocaust never took place.
In public comments later, he urged the Iranian leadership to release opposition leaders and political activists to create the conditions for free expression and open debate.
Ban's criticism may have had little effect on public opinion within the country, however. Local media reported his comments selectively, focusing on references to Iran's importance in the world and generally omitting critical remarks.
However, Ban said on Friday that he had also used meetings with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to push for change in the country: "I