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The UN's Opening of Discontent

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: September 25, 2006

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Issues like UN reform, nuclear proliferation, and peacekeeping missions took a backseat to the fiery rhetoric from foreign leaders, many of whom used the dais at the UN General Assembly's to criticize U.S. foreign policy (LAT). Fresh from the summit of the Nonaligned Movement in Cuba, the presidents of Iran, Bolivia, and Venezuela used their UN speeches to criticize big power influence in the UN Security Council. The Council on Foreign Relations came under criticism last week for hosting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but CFR President Richard N. Haass, writing in the Los Angeles Times, defended his decision to host the outspoken leader. "Face-to-face meetings are often valuable," writes Haass, adding that CFR has hosted a number of controversial statesmen throughout its eighty-five-year history, including Cuban President Fidel Castro. "Meeting with them ensures that they and those around them get to hear what you have to say, unfiltered."

Back at the United Nations, the message was clear: U.S. foreign policy has destabilized much of the world. A day after President Bush spoke out against extremism and appealed to moderates in the Mideast, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called Bush “the devil” who is intent on “exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world.” Venezuela has been touring the world to drum up support for its bid to join the Security Council, where it could be a disruptive presence and complicate any U.S. moves to press Iran on its nuclear program (LAT). In another speech, Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe accused the United States of permitting the “wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure in Lebanon” (PDF), a reference to Israeli strikes during its clashes with Hezbollah during the summer. Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, who has been resisting UN Security Council calls for a UN peacekeeping deployment, blasted the United States and other nations for meddling in his country’s affairs.  And in another dramatic gesture, Bolivia’s Evo Morales brandished a coca leaf and said the United States was using the war on drugs in South America as a pretext for “neocolonialism” (Reuters).

There has been a growing split at the United Nations between developed and developing nations, notes the UN Association’s William H. Luers, and the criticism this September comes amid continuing signs of division in the UN Security Council on moves to confront Iran. A mid-summer UN Security Council resolution called on Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program or face the threat of sanctions. But an August 31 UN deadline lapsed with no action. Key Security Council members have now agreed to create a new deadline for uranium enrichment suspension in early October, the fourth such deadline in four months (WashPost). China and Russia have made it clear they do not support sanctions, seen by Washington as a crucial point of leverage, and recently France has voiced doubts. The Wall Street Journal editorial page cast further doubt on the relevance of the UN in such cases, asserting “UN diplomacy has come to serve as a deterrent not against Iran but against any American effort to do anything about Iran’s rush to acquire the bomb.”

For President Ahmadinejad, however, the week in New York provided numerous opportunities to defy U.S. efforts to isolate his regime. The Iranian president used his opening day address at the UN General Assembly to reassert his country’s right to develop “peaceful nuclear technology” and to focus attention on the failings of the UN Security Council (PDF). He pressed this and other points in a string of interviews with such U.S. media bastions as TIME magazine, CNN, and NBC. Having been rebuffed by U.S. officials, the New York Times opined: “Mr. Ahmadinijad had a Plan B." Washington has refused direct meetings with Iranian representatives until Tehran—with which it has no diplomatic relations—has verifiably suspended uranium enrichment.

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