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Focus on diplomacy

Gero Schliess /ai
September 25, 2013

Syria and Iran topped the agenda of opening debates at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. All sides are hoping for some kind of diplomatic breakthrough, but success could remain elusive.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani
Image: Reuters

The two most pressing international conflicts could see some progress at the UN General Assembly this week. And yet, things also could turn out very different - with unpredictable consequences. There is a lot at stake.

Obama insists on strong Syria resolution

The war in Syria and tensions over the Iranian nuclear program are pushing all other issues to the side. They not only dominate the numerous meetings between heads of state and foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN gathering, but are also are the focus of speeches before the assembly.

US President Barack Obama has made it clear that for both of those conflicts, diplomacy should have priority over a military response. But he also called for words to be followed by actions. With regard to the current Russian plans for a UN resolution on Syria, Obama said "there must be a strong Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is honoring its commitments. And there must be consequences if they fail to do so."

Obama once again pointed out that the US was keeping the option open for military action. Precisely this is at the heart of the disagreement with Russia. While both sides have agreed on a resolution, it seems that the Russians have taken a few steps back again.

Barack Obama (photo: REUTERS/Andrew Burton)
Obama insists that pressure on Syria is crucialImage: Reuters

Matthew Duss of the Washington Center for American Progress says the president has to remain firm on that issue. "I think the US should insist on a robust resolution, just to show that it has done the utmost to work through the UN and then later, it can consider military action again."

Lavrov and Kerry negotiating

US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have several meetings planned in New York in order to find common ground. There is no question that the United Nations is back at the center of international efforts on Syria, especially since Russia has given up its blockade in the Security Council and has pressured Syria to agree to giving up its chemical weapons. But Obama sees the Council still faced with a big challenge, insisting that he could not tolerate the UN being unable to enforce international law. "But if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century and that this body means what it says," the president said.

In his speech, Obama also voiced his frustration with the difficult domestic debate over military action in Syria. "The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries." He warned that the danger instead was that the United States after a decade of war, and concerned with problems back home, might disengage from international conflicts. This, the president said, would "create a vacuum of leadership that no other nation can fill. I believe such disengagement would be a mistake."

Free Syrian Army fighters (photo: SAM TARLING)
The civil war in Syria is one of the most urgent international issuesImage: Sam Tarling/AFP/GettyImages

Iranian charm offensive

But even more than Syria, US media seem focused on Iran. The speech by the new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani at the assembly was eagerly awaited by the US media. Ahead of Rouhani's address, the New York Times noted, however, that there was in fact very little room for the Iranian president to make any policy changes, which alone would depend on supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It was Khamenei, who had spoken of "heroic flexibility" which had initially suggested a change of tone with Washington. Rouhani then, in recent weeks, started a charm offensive in the US media and announced that he was ready to discuss the Iranian nuclear program. His speech was accordingly moderate and rather different from his predecessor Ahmadinejad. It included the offer to cooperate with "full transparency." Analyst Matthew Duss described the speech as honest and containing the crucial message that the Iranian president wanted to constructively take action and was taking Western caution very seriously. But, "the real work begins once the foreign ministers will meet this week," he said.

Doubts remain

The mutual mistrust is deeply rooted after all those years of confrontation. There will not be a meeting between Obama and his Iranian counterpart. There also won't be a shake-hands, but at least verbally, Obama offered his hand to Teheran. "I will ask John Kerry to work towards this goal together with the Iranian governemnt in close cooperation with the European Union, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China." The most important ally in the Middle East, Israel, Obama did not mention. There was plenty of criticism coming from Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describing Rouhani's speech as "cynical" and merely buying time. Netanyahu is scheduled to speak at the assembly next week.

Hassan Rouhani (photo: REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)
Rouhani has softened Tehran's stance on the nuclear issueImage: Reuters

The German role in the Iran conflict

Germany traditionally has a rather good relationship with Iran which might prove useful in the current situation. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will not only talk to his Iranian counterpart in New York but wants to also meet with Rouhani himself. Westerwelle spoke of a "new tone" in the talks with Tehran and welcomed the open discussions that might hopefully lead to progress over Iran's nuclear program.

Although it's clear that Westerwelle will not be part of Merkel's new cabinet, he still insists that in New York he'll do his job properly. "With regard to Iran, Syria and the Middle East, this is a very decisive week," the German foreign minister said.

Westerwelle also reassured the international community that the outcome of last Sunday's German election did not mean a break in the continuity of Berlin's foreign policy. While there will be a new government in Germany, "this does not mean we are unable to act on foreign policy issues. We are a reliable country ready to act," Westerwelle emphasized.

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