from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

High Stakes UN Diplomacy on Syria and Iran

September 23, 2013

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Two issues will dominate this week’s annual summit of world leaders as the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) kicks off its sixty-eighth session in New York. The first is Syria, whose government must begin to deliver on commitments to eliminate its chemical weapons, even as its civil war grinds on. The second is Iran, whose new president, Hassan Rouhani, has signaled a potential deal with the West over his nation’s nuclear program.

These two diplomatic openings offer a tentative, if unexpected, windfall for U.S. president Barack Obama, attending his  fifth UNGA opening session. Obama, it should be noted, came to office heralding a new era of global “engagement” after the perceived unilateralism of his predecessor George W. Bush. Under Obama’s new approach, military force would take a back seat to diplomacy, including dialogue with U.S. adversaries. Unfortunately for the president, the world’s rogue (or “outlier”) states often met his open hand with a mailed fist.

Syria, protected by its Russian patron in the UN Security Council, has been engaged in a scorched earth campaign against opposition forces, charged by rights groups and other outside monitors of committing massive atrocities against its civilian population. The Obama administration, backed by Western allies, accuses the regime of Bashar al-Assad of launching a large-scale chemical weapons attack on August 21 that mocked Obama’s “red line” rhetoric and finally elicited a White House threat of force to punish Damascus. Iran, meanwhile, has continued its uranium enrichment program even in the face of stringent sanctions, coming closer to nuclear weapons “breakout” capability. In the face of Iranian intransigence, some analysts have said only military force could prevent the mullahs from getting the bomb.

Suddenly, the diplomatic landscape has been transformed. By dint of fortune as much as strategy, President Obama arrives in New York with tentative diplomatic paths out of these two long-running crises. Look for Syria and Iran to dominate his speech from the podium. Obama will frame them collectively as the primary security challenge facing the UN in the twenty-first century: stemming and reversing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Ironically, he is likely to echo George W. Bush’s own UNGA speech of September 2002, which challenged the UN Security Council (UNSC) to prove its relevance in an age of WMD.

On Syria, the president will likely cite the thorough UN inspectors report as providing indisputable evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons (CW). Echoing the marker laid down by Secretary of State John Kerry, he will demand that the UNSC pass a robust resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, as promised by the terms of the Geneva Agreement. The president should be adamant that the international inspection team have carte blanche power to inspect any Syrian facility at any time, as well as sufficient physical security to travel safely in a civil war situation. Most importantly, he should insist on a resolution that authorizes coercion if Syria fails to come clean on its CW holdings or begins to play a game of cat and mouse with the weapons inspectors.

President Obama must lay down a clear marker that the United States remains prepared to launch meaningful punitive strikes if the Syrian government balks at surrendering its CW. An unequivocal stance should help concentrate minds in Moscow. President Putin scored a triumph by persuading the United States to give Security Council diplomacy another try. Obama’s speech must remind the Russians their victory is contingent on a meaningful UNSC resolution.

The president must also clarify how this effort to eliminate Syria’s WMD relates to that country’s ongoing civil war and humanitarian catastrophe. Conventional warfare, after all, has already killed more than 100,000 people, injured countless others, and driven a third of Syrians from their homes—with four million internally displaced and more than two million refugees in neighboring countries. Yes, preserving the CW taboo is imperative. But stopping there only ensures that Syrians will continue to die another day, another way.

On the Iranian diplomatic front, Obama has an unexpected second chance to pursue the path of engagement, thanks in part to an exchange of letters with newly elected president Hassan Rouhani.  Tehran, seeking relief from oppressive sanctions, has signaled an apparent willingness to curb its enrichment activities. Significantly, Rouhani seems to be operating with the endorsement of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. Obama may even meet his Iranian counterpart on the margins of UNGA. But his speech from the podium offers an important public opportunity to describe the U.S. vision of—and preconditions for—rapprochement between the United States and Iran after thirty-four years of estrangement. Obama’s task will be to balance firmness on the nuclear issue (and Iranian support for terrorism) with the promise of normalization and its benefits if Iran comes in from the cold.

Whenever a U.S. president steps to the podium in New York, the audience that matters is as much domestic as foreign. No gambler by temperament, Obama has laid major wagers on diplomacy with Syria and Iran. The domestic political stakes are high, as are the prospects for failure. Were UNSC diplomacy to collapse over Syria, the president can plausibly claim that he went “the extra mile” for peace before adopting a unilateral (or “coalition of the willing”) approach outside the UN.

The president also faces domestic risks with Iran. Having been burned once before, Obama will be pilloried by critics as a congenital naïf if talks collapse. But it is a wager the president cannot avoid, for it presents the best opportunity for a nuclear deal with Tehran that he is likely to see. And in diplomacy, as in much of life, nothing ventured, nothing gained.