Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013


The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) always has its share of notable (and theatrical) moments, and this year should prove no different. Many countries have high stakes going into this year’s UNGA, which offers a forum to both advance international goals and push domestic political agendas. Plenty of focus in the coming weeks will be on events in the Arab world and broader Middle East. Here are five things to watch:

Movement on Syria

The UNGA convenes after an unprecedented few weeks of diplomatic back-and-forth on Syria, both within the United States and between the U.S. and Russia. The international community so far has seen defiance from Britain’s Parliament on getting involved; an overture to the U.S. Congress by President Obama (later rescinded); a “gaffe-turned-opportunity” from Secretary of State John Kerry that arguably led to a chemical weapons agreement – all this, and a dose of op-ed diplomacy from Russian President Vladmir Putin.

While the UNGA tends to conclude with broad proposals, political posturing and sound bites, there is hope that the Security Council will meet and at least discuss the U.S.-Russia chemical weapons disarmament deal in Syria further. The Obama administration may find it advantageous to continue pushing for a binding Security Council resolution that can add legitimacy to the U.S.-Russia deal. However, any agreement on a binding resolution as provided by Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter remains uncertain given Russia’s rejection of making the deal legally enforceable, so it will be important to watch what positions come out of Washington and Moscow in the coming weeks if no deal is made.

Additionally, leaders from the Syrian Opposition Coalition will attend UNGA meetings in New York. The opposition has already called for ensuring that noncompliance measures are put in place by the United Nations to ensure that the Assad regime cooperates fully with the deal, so their role in any new developments may be crucial.

The Unpredictable Rouhani

In previous years, Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became rather predictable in his bombastic speeches, interviews and remarks during the UNGA, usually inspiring walkouts from many delegations. In 2011, more than a third of the General Assembly seats were empty by the time he finished speaking.

This time around, it looks like the Assembly will be staying in their seats. With unpredictability and speculation surrounding Iran’s intentions after the recent presidential election, the new President Hassan Rouhani is the man people want to hear. He conducted his own form of op-ed diplomacy last week in advance of his trip to New York and his administration has been handed skeptical praise for its use of Twitter to engage the world. Just last week, Tehran freed eight political prisoners. While the intentions and motives of the regime remain unclear, many analysts are saying Rouhani’s charm offensive is worth exploring.

Still, a lot is uncertain: while Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears to have given Rouhani an opening to explore what can be achieved with the United States, no one knows how far the president can go without the Ayatollah’s blessing – whether on a nuclear deal or discussing Iran’s role in Syria and regionally. Further, many are wondering if Rouhani will make any grand pronouncements or proposals in his speech, which is only hours after President Obama’s on Tuesday.

Rouhani was not invited to the Obamas’ reception Monday night for world leaders attending the UNGA, and no plans have been put in place so far for a meeting between the two leaders. Notably, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will meet this week with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a gathering between the five major powers negotiating on Iran's nuclear program on Thursday. It will be the highest level encounter between U.S. and Iranian officials since the 1979 Iranian revolution, when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized and its diplomatic staff held hostage for over a year.

Finally, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak one week after Obama and Rouhani, next Tuesday. The New York Times reported that he plans to warn the United Nations against taking Iranian overtures too seriously, comparing a potential Iranian nuclear deal with “a trap similar to one set by North Korea eight years ago.” The speech appears directly aimed at President Obama and Rouhani’s addresses this Tuesday.

The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

The Syrian crisis and Iran’s overtures have largely overshadowed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has continued quietly under the auspices of Secretary Kerry. It is unclear whether any positive advancement will come out of this year’s UNGA on the peace process. Last year, Palestinians gained recognition as a non-member state and this year, the U.N. plans to discusspermanent sovereignty of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and of the Arab population in the occupied Syrian Golan over their natural resources.”

Even if nothing new comes to fruition, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will still address the General Assembly on September 26 and President Obama will meet with Abbas for the first time since direct negotiations began earlier this year. Israel’s Netanyahu will visit the White House at the end of September. 

Obama’s Bilateral Meeting with Lebanon’s President

A largely underreported bilateral meeting will occur this week between President Obama and Lebanon’s President, Michel Sleiman. Sleiman has been pressing for Lebanon’s continued “disassociation” from the ongoing crisis in neighboring Syria. The crisis has arguably trickled into Lebanon: a destabilizing refugee crisis is continuing to intensify, recent bombing attacks have targeted civilians, and the government remains paralyzed over parliamentary elections and cabinet formation. What emerges from the Obama-Sleiman meeting will be important both for addressing current instability within Lebanon as well as demonstrating support for Lebanon’s sovereignty.

This newfound attention toward Lebanon is a welcome development. A special U.N. meeting Tuesday will discuss how to accommodate the influx of Syrian refugees in the country – nearly 2 million have entered the country. On September 25, Lebanon will launch the International Support Group in an effort to keep Lebanon stable despite regional events. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host the meeting and President Sleiman will provide the inaugural address, in addition to his speech to the General Assembly. The five permanent members of the Security Council and others will show support for Lebanon’s disassociation policy.

The Millennium Development Goals

Finally, while the showy aspects and grand political gestures of the UNGA may make the headlines, the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals remain a top priority for the international community. The goals include reducing the poverty rate globally by half, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, reducing maternal and infant mortality rates, and providing universal primary education. Substantial progress has been made since 2005, with the 2015 deadline now looming. Diplomats will discuss these goals on Monday and Secretary-General Ban stated that greater progress towards the current goals will fuel confidence and mobilize support for a new framework beyond 2015.

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