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United States, Iran Trade Barbs at UN

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: September 20, 2006

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U.S. President George W. Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never met at UN headquarters Tuesday but the words they used from the same General Assembly podium amounted to a dialogue of sorts about the Iranian nuclear crisis. Bush addressed the Iranian people, telling them “your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation's resources to fund terrorism, and fuel extremism, and pursue nuclear weapons.” Ahmadinejad countered that Iran’s nuclear activities were “transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eyes of the IAEA inspectors” (UN News Center). The Iranian president also slammed U.S. efforts in Iraq, saying "the occupiers are incapable of establishing security in Iraq" and that the ongoing violence there “serves as a pretext for the continued presence of foreign forces in Iraq."

[Separately, Ahmadinejad met with a blue-ribbon panel of CFR members Wednesday evening, trading views on the major issues dividing Iran and the United States. The Washington Post and New York Times also covered the event].

Bush’s UN address appealed to moderates in the broader Middle East and emphasized the need to transform the region through democratic reforms. While warning Iran to obey UN Security Council calls to suspend uranium enrichment, Bush stressed, "We're working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis."  He got a mixed reaction from U.S. conservatives critical of the United Nations, some of whom believe Bush was far too deferential to the organization (National Review Online). Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute warned that Iranian diplomacy is insincere: “The Iranian leadership will say anything and do anything to buy the time necessary to acquire nuclear capability” (WSJ). But U.S. officials are conducting a flurry of meetings on the sidelines of the General Assembly debate to find a united diplomatic voice to challenge Iran. A mid-summer UN Security Council resolution called on Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program or face the threat of sanctions. The deadline lapsed at the end of August, but Security Council members Russia and China have made it clear they do not support sanctions and recently France has voiced doubts. Iran has cleverly played off East-West divisions in the Security Council, writes analyst Sanam Vakil, noting that its relationships with China, Russia, and India have given it strategic partners “willing to accept its nefarious activities and willing to deal with it on a quid pro quo basis.” (Washington Quarterly) (PDF). A new ally of Iran, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is lobbying for his country to join the Security Council as a non-permanent member, which could intensify the divisions on that body. In his UN address Wednesday Chavez accused the United States of exploiting the peoples of the world, saying of Bush: “The devil came here yesterday” (AP).

To some observers, the Bush administration has been forced to adopt a softer posture due to the troubles it has encountered in Iraq. For example, in three recent Security Council resolutions on Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan, the United States had to drop or weaken references to authorizing military action (Bloomberg). In an interview with CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman, CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein says U.S. leverage on Iran and Darfur has been eroded by the failures in Iraq. It was the U.S. intervention in Iraq that helped spawn sectarian disputes there, write CFR senior fellows Charles A. Kupchan and Ray Takeyh. This contributed, they say, to an "earthquake" in the region that has made many long-standing disputes more intractable. But CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr says the Shiite rise in the Mideast also presents opportunities for Washington to advance its interests there. To do that, Nasr says, the Bush administration must be willing to engage Iranian leaders, with whom they could cooperate with to bring stability to Iraq (Foreign Affairs).

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