by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi and Nader Entessar
Once again, the United Nations is about to turn into a battleground between the United States and Iran, which are experiencing one of the darkest moments in their bilateral relations. Both President Donald Trump and President Hassan Rouhani are scheduled to take the podium at the UN General Assembly on September 25, followed by a special UN Security Council session devoted to Iran, which will be chaired by Trump. According to U.S. Ambassador to UN Nikki Haley, the purpose of this session is to deal with Iran’s “violations of international law.”
As expected, Haley’s announcement has elicited a rather terse response from Iran. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif termed it an “abuse” of the Council by Trump, who has disregarded the only UNSC resolution on Iran—Resolution 2231 in July 2015—which calls on member states to fully comply with the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In light of the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and re-imposition of Iran sanctions—and Iran’s complaints to both the UNSC and the International Court of Justice—the stage is now set for a vitriolic showdown at the UN, with each side seeking to de-legitimize the policies and public postures of the other side.
Ironically, there is also an admittedly slender opportunity at the upcoming annual UN gathering in New York for the de-escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran. President Trump has made several statements—initially in July 2018 and again in his meeting with the emir of Kuwait—in favor of a meeting with his Iranian counterpart. Despite Tehran’s rejection of Trump’s offer of talk “without preconditions,” the White House continues with its quest for a meeting through various channels. Following the Supreme Leader’s explicit banning of any contact with the United States “at any level,” Foreign Minister Zarif has ruled out the possibility of a Trump-Rouhani meeting in New York.
But, as we pointed out in our op-ed piece in The New York Times, should Trump decide to send a signal to Iran that he is genuinely interested in exploring alternative (i.e., non-coercive and diplomatic) options with Iran, then chances are that Ayatollah Khamenei would give the green light to such a meeting. A Trump-Rouhani meeting on the sidelines of the UN summit is doubtless a nightmare scenario for the US administration’s Iranophobic hawks such as National Security Adviser John Bolton. Ambassador Haley, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who immediately followed Trump’s July statement on talks with Iran by laying down tough conditions to neutralize this possibility. In his recent visits to Israel and the Persian Gulf, Pompeo has reassured his audiences that the United States is determined to maintain “maximum pressure” on Iran and to make Iran pay for its regional behavior.
Not everyone is on board with the Bolton-Pompeo approach, however. Defense Secretary James Mattis, for instance, is conspicuously quiet when it comes to endorsing this policy.
Trump’s Iran-bashing agenda also comes up against an international community that’s largely on Iran’s side with respect to the JCPOA. America’s European allies, for instance, are unanimously sticking with the JCPOA and ignoring US demands that they abandon the deal. The EU has also introduced blocking regulation designed to protect European firms in Iran from secondary U.S. sanctions. Even UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is an ardent defender of the JCPOA. The few member states that side with Trump on Iran, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, are themselves under intense international scrutiny for their atrocities against Palestinians and Yemen respectively (which begs the question of why the UN Security Council is ignoring those subjects while earmarking a session on Iran).
At the moment, it is unclear if Iran will bother to attend that particular session in order to rebut U.S. accusations. The issue has sparked a lively debate in Iran, with some pundits calling for a boycott while more moderate voices are counseling Rouhani to deliver a firm and principled response to Trump. Given Rouhani-Zarif’s penchant for rational discourse, chances are that they will not cede the UNSC forum to the American adversary. Instead they will highlight Trump’s transgression of international law in defying the UNSC resolution on Iran. They may also cite the massive U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members (which fan the flames of a regional arms race), aiding terrorists in Syria, and giving carte blanche to Israel’s expansionist policies.
Of course, this does not mean that the United States can’t marshal some forces against Iran on such matters as its missile threat, support for the Houthis in Yemen, and so on. In fact, Europe may be deliberately dragging its feet on the JCPOA deliverables to Iran. France, meanwhile, has increasingly aligned itself with the United States on these issues, as indicated most recently by the French foreign minister’s call for negotiations on Iran’s ballistic missiles.
In addition, prior to the UN gathering, things in Syria’s Idlib could get messy, particularly if another chemical attack attributed to Damascus prompts another joint US-European missile attack on Syria, as Russian military officials recently warned. Such a development on the eve of the UN summit would sharpen tensions in US-Russia relations. But, even without this scenario, the United States has enough ammunition to use against Iran at the UN in order to promote changes in Iran’s external as well as internal behavior.
One of the key points of debate inside Iran is whether or not Trump is genuinely interested in a meaningful talk with Iran or is just offering, as Bolton once suggested in a 2017 article, a make-believe olive branch. This begs another question: Is Trump fully in charge of his Iran policy or has he delegated all the details to his subordinates?
The speed with which Pompeo revised Trump’s offer of talks without preconditions suggests that Trump does not fully subscribe to the purely confrontational approach of his hawkish Iran team. If so, then Iran must factor in this potential policy gap between Trump and his advisors. In other words, Iran should consider ignoring the harsh U.S. rhetoric and pursue a nuanced approach. At the same time, however, Iran should take seriously the possibility that Trump is not, in fact, open to diplomacy. The administration is currently pursuing economic warfare, and Bolton in particular clearly wants regime change in Iran even though he officially denies it. Economic sanctions on Iran, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi warned this week, could also push even more refugees into Europe.
A Trump-Rouhani meeting would carry multiple intended and unintended consequences that could yield very different outcomes. But if both sides can build confidence that the other side’s intention is to de-escalate tensions, which can be achieved through secret and open channels, then it may be a risk worth taking, given the high stakes involved. The chances for such a meeting, however, are complicated by the sheer weight of the obstacles facing it. And that means that a showdown at the UN is almost inevitable, much to the chagrin of UN officials and others in the international community who are genuinely worried about the prospect of yet another calamitous war in the Middle East.
Kaveh Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at the University of Tehran and Nader Entessar is professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Alabama. They are the authors of Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) and Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Accord and Detente Since the Geneva Agreement of 2013 (Rowman & Littefield, 2015).