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War of Words Emerges over UN Security Council Meeting, but Outcome is Unclear

By Edward Carney

This week, the White House announced that it would be leading a meeting of the United Nations Security Council later in September with the purpose of drawing attention to Iran’s malign activities and encouraging a multilateral response to them. The UN Dispatch explained on Thursday that the meeting would coincide with the United Nations General Assembly in New York, as a result of a “quirk of scheduling” that puts the US in charge of the rotating presidency of the Security Council and thus empowers it to set the body’s agenda at the same time that world leaders will be on-hand for annual gathering of its parent organization.

The UN Dispatch added that the overlap between the General Assembly and the Security Council meeting could result in a face-to-face confrontation between US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, as both men are expected to be in New York for the event. Such a meeting could serve as a proving ground for the “war of words” between the two countries, which has certainly escalated in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Security Council-enforced Iran nuclear deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May.

Since that withdrawal, various White House officials including the president himself have reaffirmed that the aim of their Iran strategy is to secure a comprehensive change in the regime’s behavior and a shift away from the “malign activities” that will presumably be the focus of this month’s Security Council discussion, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ interventions into the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. These sorts of statements have elicited particular defiance from the allegedly moderate Rouhani, bringing him more publicly in line with the anti-Western rhetoric that is typical of the alternative, hardline political faction associated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The Rouhani administration accordingly seized upon the White House announcement to repeat criticisms of the US. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, for instance, wrote on Twitter that the US “plans to abuse the presidency” of the Security Council, and he went on to name-check the Israeli Palestinian conflict, in the latest repeat of regime officials’ trend of using the Palestinian cause as a rallying cry for anti-Americanism among Muslim majority nations.

Al Jazeera reported upon Zarif’s comments but also noted that the announcement ot which he was replying had highlighted “Iran's violations of international law and the general instability Iran sows throughout the entire Middle East region.” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared that these issues would be addressed by the Security Council meeting, but it remains an open question as to whether the other four council members and various observer states listen more closely to American or Iranian perspectives in the days and weeks to come.

The permanent members of the UNSC – the US, UK, France, Russia, and China – make up five of the six world powers that negotiated the JCPOA with Iran, the sixth being Germany. So far, all but the US have elected to stand by the nuclear deal and have made efforts to negotiate with Iran in order to provide incentives for its preservation in absence of American participation. This decision arguably reflects a more general lack of receptiveness to American talking points about Iran’s malign behaviors, although not all world powers are willing to defy the US to the same extent.

The UK and France have naturally been critical of the Islamic Republic in other areas, even as they attempt to defend the JCPOA. For instance, the UK continues to lobby for the release of Iranian-British charity worker and political prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, while France has at times shown even more commitment than the US to undercutting the Iranian presence in Syria. By contrast, Russia and China both appear to be expanding upon their alliances with Iran, and Russia in particular is defying Western attitudes about such matters as the Security Council meeting.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported on Wednesday that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had quickly joined Tehran in condemning the latest American appeal for multilateral action to confront an Iranian threat. “They are mistaken if they think that they can use the UN rostrum as a forum for starting again to rally and, so to speak, organize everyone under their banners,” he said of US officials.

But by contrast, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, said on Thursday that the focus of the forthcoming Security Council meeting could be expected to have an impact on the General Assembly and to make Iran’s “aggressive policy” a major focus of the international gathering. Notwithstanding the efforts by Russia and a few other countries to undermine the American led efforts, Danon argued that “other countries in the world are expected to increase their pressure against Iran,” and that the recent American announcement “will have significant implications” for this trend.

But as well as quoting Danon on this matter, the Algemeiner affirmed that Iran is looking to both Russia and China for stop gap measures that might lessen the impact of US sanctions. Accordingly, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami traveled to Beijing on Thursday for talks with Chinese officials. Furthermore, RFE/RL reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled to hold talks with both Iran’s president and its supreme leader, on topics including the nuclear deal and the two countries mutual defense of the Assad dictatorship in Syria.

This speaks to the fact that unless Russia’s foreign policy calculations change in the near future, it can be expected to go on defying the US over more than just the future of the JCPOA. Indeed, Bloomberg reported on Thursday that Putin had apparently rejected appeals by the Trump administration to help facilitate the removal of Iranian troops and Iran-backed militias from Syrian territory. The White House reportedly floated the idea of a pullout of US troops as an incentive, stating that it would only take place once all Iranian personnel and weapons were gone.

But Russia now seems poised to support Iranian forces in an assault on Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria and a region that the Iranian Foreign Minister called for “cleaning out” during a visit to Damascus this week. Such language is chilling to many opponents of the Iranian regime, and it arguably helps to support the sort of argument presented in an editorial published by the Algemeiner on Thursday: that the Islamic Republic is committed to preserving its familiar, “explosive” policies in the region, and also to building still further upon those policies with actions that have not yet been widely reported.

The editorial in question declared that “Iran is the source of evil in the region and comprehensive action is required to stop it.” Such comprehensive action is, of course, what the US will strive to encourage when it leads the Security Council meeting against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly later this month. That effort may make some inroads with traditional European partners of the US, but it remains to be seen whether other world powers, particularly Russia, can be swayed from their defense of the Iranian regime.

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