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Facing Off with Iran at the UN

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: September 25, 2007

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It is five years since President Bush came to the United Nations to warn of the “grave and gathering danger” posed by Saddam Hussein. The ensuing U.S. invasion of Iraq set off a debate that continues to this day over U.S. leadership and the organization’s role in global security. Now Bush takes the UN General Assembly podium with Washington stepping up warnings about another Middle Eastern threat—Iran. His chances for strengthening an international coalition appear at least as uncertain (CSMonitor) as they were prior to the Iraq war. Scheduled speeches by Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on September 25 come amid planned high-level diplomacy among the five permanent UN Security Council members over whether to expand sanctions a third time for Iran’s refusal to suspend its uranium-enrichment program.

The Bush administration and many of its Western allies worry Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons, though Tehran insists it is exercising its right to peaceful nuclear power. Ahmadinejad reiterated that on the program 60 Minutes on Sunday, and again during a speech at Columbia University, a two-hour verbal spar in which the Iranian president offered bewildering thoughts (NYT) on homosexuals and the Holocaust. But Ahmadinejad's views on proliferation were less opaque (Reuters): “We don't believe in nuclear weapons, period,” he said. While UN sanctions have so far been more symbolic than effective, Washington has ratcheted up other efforts to pressure the regime economically, with Treasury Department pressure on allies to tighten financial dealings (McClatchy) with Iran showing progress. A new wrinkle in the debate is the tougher stance adopted by France. The Economist describes French President Nicolas Sarkozy as “palpably impatient” about the lack of progress on new UN sanctions against Iran. His foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, made waves in mid-September by suggesting a military attack on Iran was possible, before stressing his focus was on a diplomatic offensive (FT).

Echoing the UN debate on Iraq, Russia and China have signaled they do not support tougher sanctions at this time. In closed-door meetings in New York on September 21, divisions among the permanent five Security Council members over the timing of new sanctions were apparent (WashPost); Russia and China have stressed that a new agreement (PDF) reached by the UN nuclear agency and Iran provides for a less antagonistic way to achieve results. The agreement gives Iran three months to start clearing up ambiguities about its nuclear projects to confirm that they are for peaceful uses.

Bush and Ahmadinejad’s speeches at this year’s UN General Assembly will likely be studied for differences from their speeches at last year’s event. At those meetings, Bush appealed to Iranian moderates and said the United States was working toward a diplomatic solution. Experts will also watch Ahmadinejad's comments for any rifts with his country's senior leadership. Two fellows at the Middle East Media Research Institute write of emerging cracks on nuclear policy. CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh argues that both Washington and Tehran would be better served by dealing with each other privately and directly, especially on security efforts in Iraq.

For all the focus on Washington and Tehran, however, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is devoting his first General Assembly session to a series of smaller meetings, focusing on issues like climate change, Darfur, Middle East peace, and Afghanistan. William H. Luers, president of the UN Association of the United States, says Ban is seeking to place the United Nations at the center of problem solving in world’s crises, “rather than leaving issues to the unmanageable environment of the general debate.”

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