Friday, September 27, 2013

A Week in Review: What Happened at the Opening of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly

The week of 23 September 2013, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) convened  its 68th session in New York.  

According to UNGA's website, its mandate is "to tackle humanity's most intractable problems."  Well, it certainly is not short on work as the Assembly convened in the midst of the Syrian crisis, potential diplomatic baby steps with Iran, outbursts of terror in Peshawar and Nairobi, continued worsening violence in Iraq, and an on-going war in Afghanistan - not to mention a host of other weighty issues.

The world's eyes were on New York this week, with a mixture of anticipation and speculation.  NBC News captured the atmosphere in the lead up to the Assembly with an article entitled "Five burning questions about high-stakes UN General Assembly."  

NBC provided the questions.  I've provided the answers.  

In this post, we'll examine how UNGA has addressed those "five burning questions" this week.

1) "Will Obama and Rouhani meet face-to-face?"

No face-to-face and no handshake.  According to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, there simply wasn't enough time for a handshake or a meeting with President Obama.

Maybe next time.

2) "What will Rouhani say in his first U.N. speech?"

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, could be the catalyst for a new chapter in Iran-US relations.  Since being elected in June 2013 and taking office in August, he has made various overtures to the United States.  One of those overtures came in the form of an Op-Ed Rouhani wrote for The Washington Post, entitled "Why Iran Seeks Constructive Engagement."  In it, Rouhani wrote "We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart."  In other words, can't we all just get along?  Okay, yes, it's much more complex than that.  But his words were a type of olive branch - but one with very deep roots.  In that same Op-Ed, Rouhani made strong statements about the importance of identity and linked that sense of self to Iran's economic right to develop its nuclear energy program.  Iran wants to diversify through global interaction while retaining its own autonomy, much like most developing countries.  But it's Iran!!  

Our strained history (recall the Iranian Hostage Crisis?) makes the US incredibly weary of scary Iran.  But this new leader seems like he could be something different.  The New York Times described our ambivalence to categorize the new leader as friend or foe yet in this way: "it was at times difficult to tell whether Mr. Rouhani was a genuinely transformative Iranian leader, as his cabinet insisted, or a more polished avatar of the past, as his critics claimed."

At UNGA this week, Rouhani's opening address confronted directly the so-called propaganda of the "Iranian threat," insisting "that based on irrefutable evidence, those who harp on the so-called threat of Iran are either a threat against international peace and security themselves or promote such a threat" and claimed that "Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region. In fact, in ideals as well as in actual practice, my country has been a harbinger of just peace and comprehensive security."  With regard to international collaboration, Rouhani declared "the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a regional power, will act responsibly with regard to regional and international security, and is willing and prepared to cooperate in these fields, bilaterally as well as multilaterally, with other responsible actors."  In summation: a rosy picture of a peaceful and peace loving Iran desirous of joining with the international community to improve what's become the global violent status quo.  

As they say, words are cheap and actions mean everything.  So - we'll see what comes of this new Iran.

3) "Will Obama and Putin come to blows over Syria?"

Not exactly.  Those "blows" seemed to have been limited to a mild war of words regarding the "exceptionalism" with which the United States operates on the world stage.  President Obama's address to UNGA was, in part, a response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's Op-Ed in The New York Times entitled "A Plea for Caution from Russia."  In the Op-Ed, Putin chastised America's 'exceptionalism,' writing "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.  There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."  Obama responded in his UNGA speech: "Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional -- in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all."

On the Syria issue specifically, diplomatic collaborative efforts between Russia and the United States seem to be moving forward.  As of late Thursday, 27 September, the UN Security Council's five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) had agreed on a draft resolution that condemns the Syrian chemical weapons program and endorses the destruction of the CW, and allows for a Chapter VII mandate in the event of non-compliance.  The Security Council is set to vote today, Friday 28 September.  As of this writing, they have not yet voted. 

4) "Will Israel and Palestine show any sign of progress on peace talks?"  

Judging from President Obama's UNGA remarks, there are signs of optimism for progress: "So the time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace.  Already, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks.  President Abbas has put aside efforts to short-cut the pursuit of peace and come to the negotiating table.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has released Palestinian prisoners and reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state.  Current talks are focused on final status issues of borders and security, refugees and Jerusalem."

In a private meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, Obama admitted that with regard to negotiated peace talks: "None of us are under any illusion that this would be easy."

5) "Sudan's president has been indicted for war crimes. Will he show up?"

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was a no-show for the UN General Assembly.  Despite the International Criminal Court (ICC)'s warrants for his arrest for 5 counts of crimes against humanity, 2 counts of war crimes, and 3 counts of genocide, President Bashir had RSVP'd 'yes' to the opening Assembly, and was listed as a speaker for a meeting on Thursday.  However, he backed out at the last minute.  Unsurprisingly.  


  1. Good news late Friday that the UN Security Council voted unanimously to endorse the resolution to stop the Syrian chemical weapons program, and enforce any non-compliance.

  2. Also on Friday, President Obama spoke by telephone to President Rouhani - a significant step since a US President hadn't spoken to an Iranian President since 1979. We'll stay tuned for what's to come of this new development in US-Iran relations.