The fight over preserving the Iranian nuclear deal took a firmer direction at the United Nations on Sept. 20. After Donald Trump, the United States president, proclaimed to the General Assembly the day before that the deal was “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” heads started spinning yet again.
Yet in the early evening of Sept. 20, all parties to the deal met behind closed doors in the Security Council to address the latest wrinkle posed by Trump. Several foreign ministers were on board — Rex Tillerson of the US; Sergey Lavrov of Russia; Wang Yi of China; Javad Zarif of Iran — as well as diplomats from Britain, France and Germany.
Federica Mogherini, the foreign affairs minister for the European Commission, chaired the meeting, which also included Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN. (She came in with her entourage, separately from Tillerson and his group.)
When Mogherini came out of the meeting, she was unequivocal.
“It has been a frank, open and in-depth discussion,” she began, “during which we have agreed on the fact that all sides are implementing, so far, fully the agreement, as it has been certified by the IAEA eight times for what concerns the nuclear commitments of Iran.”
No violations have occurred — she confirmed — “and my sincere hope is that this is going to continue to be the case.”
She said there were other issues out of the scope of the agreement, which could be tackled in other formats, in other forums, including the US holding its own “review of Iranian policy.”
“We are sticking to point that the nuclear agreement is working, is delivering, is functioning. I can share with you the general sense that we shared tonight with the ministers is that with the difficult times we are living in the world of today . . . the international community cannot afford dismantling an agreement that is working and delivering.”
Mogherini added: “This is not a bilateral agreement . . . this is a UN Security Council resolution, with an annex. And as such, all member states of the United Nations are considered to be bind to it.”
She said there was no discussion in the meeting on changing the agreement or the Security Council resolution behind it, since it was “fully delivering.” When asked if Tillerson agreed with that position, she answered indirectly that she was not the spokesman of President Trump, yet she confirmed the US had agreed that Iran was in compliance.
But did the US agree with what Mogherini said? Sighing, looking flustered, she said: “Another question? We’re discussing it,” adding that the resolution has a dispute mechanism that could be used to mediate problems a party may have with the agreement.
Trump’s stance on the nuclear deal, expressed in his maiden address to the General Assembly, was old news, espoused repeatedly over the summer by Haley. But Tillerson had backed off criticizing it publicly. Until yesterday.
Suddenly, Tillerson chimed in on the criticism, telling Fox News on Sept. 19 that a key sticking point in the agreement, known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is the “sunset clause,” which automatically lifts most key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program by 2025.
“If we are going to stick with the Iran deal, there has to be changes made to it,” Tillerson said in the Fox interview, adding that the sunset provisions are the accord’s “most glaring flaw.”
The nuclear deal was reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015, brokered among Iran, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States—plus Germany) and the European Union. But the main negotiators were the US, under the Obama administration, and Iran. Trump has vowed to decertify Iran’s compliance on the deal, a mandate scheduled every six months, with the next one due in mid-October. That deadline makes steps to preserve the deal urgent, from the Europeans’ point of view, at least. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
Vice President Pence comes to the Security Council
The Council adopted Resolution 2378, which commits the Council to using politics as a primary tool to resolving a conflict. Dozens upon dozens of heads of state and foreign ministers attended the Sept. 20 meeting. Shortly after the unanimous vote by the Council members, US Vice President Mike Pence spoke in the chamber on peacekeeping reform and human rights. He echoed a familiar Trump position: peacekeeping operations must adjust for progress and failure and ultimately have an exit strategy.
“To keep peace most effectively,” Pence said, “the United Nations must have the credibility to pursue peace by advancing human rights.” Pence segued from reforming UN peace operations to criticizing the UN Human Rights Council, another familiar lament of the current US administration. On the UN Human Rights Council, Pence bemoaned the inclusion of countries that his administration thinks has violated “the timeless principles of human rights on which the UN was founded,” and that the Council “does not deserve its name.”
Seated at the horseshoe table in the chamber with prime ministers and heads of state from Europe and Africa, including Theresa May of Britain, Emmanuel Macron of France, Paolo Gentiloni of Italy, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt and Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, Pence quoted, mentioned and cited his boss at least eight times in his 14.5-minute speech. — LAURA KIRKPATRICK
General Assembly speeches: a smattering few
Britain: One day after Trump’s isolationist diatribe at the General Assembly, Prime Minister Theresa May spoke about international cooperation. Calling her country “outward looking,” May reminded the international audience that her country was the second-biggest funder of the UN, financing humanitarian aid and supporting peacekeeping operations. She then announced, rather surprisingly, that 30 percent of Britain’s funding would be held in escrow to give money to those parts of the UN “that can achieve results.” May supported Secretary-General Guterres’s reform agenda, saying the UN is experiencing “a gap of nobility of purpose and effectiveness of delivery.” Like many world leaders, May spoke about the threat of nuclear war, countries that violate human rights, Syria and the crisis of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Terrorism was of particular importance in her comments, given that Britain was attacked by terrorists five times this year alone. In that vein, May asked Guterres to make fighting terrorism and extremist ideologies the agenda of next year’s General Assembly session. (She also let drop that Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s former prime minister, introduced her to her husband, Philip May, a banker.)
Bulgaria: President Rumen Radev called on UN member states to address the root causes of armed conflict more systematically. He also emphasized the need for equality, inclusion and participation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and endorsed the recent push by Guterres to improve conflict prevention. Radev expressed Bulgaria’s commitment to peaceful resolutions to conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Ukraine, as well as nuclear nonproliferation and the Iran nuclear deal.
Chile: President Michelle Bachelet, in her last speech as Chile’s leader to the General Assembly before her term ends in March, spoke primarily about the “unshakeable reality of climate change”; multilateralism (which she described as “peaceful work together”); strengthening democracy; and gender equality. Even though we are “far south on the American continent,” she said, Chile is a “full part of the world,” striving to meet the 2030 Agenda global development goals and joining the fight against climate change through national energy-transition programs and banning, for example, plastic bags in coastal cities, the first country in the Americas to pass such a law, she said. To improve Chile’s democratic institutions, work is being done in enhancing transparency and honesty, Bachelet noted. For women, Chile remains one of the few beacons in the Americas: a 40 percent quota on women candidates in elections has been mandated, and it recently decriminalized abortion. Chile is also outwardly aware: on Venezuela, Bachelet said, Chile is calling on, with other countries in the region, for dialogue “to fully restore democracy in that country, which is so dear to us.”
Azerbaijan: President Ilham Aliyev launched immediately into the frozen conflict between his country and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh — the disputed region technically part of Azerbaijan but populated mostly by ethnic Armenians. It is a conflict with little chance of reconciliation in the near future, as the parties involved have faint incentive for brokering peace. For more than 25 years, Aliyev said, Armenia has occupied “our territory,” referring to the nationalist Armenia movement in the region that began the conflict in 1988 and culminated in a cease-fire in 1994. Aliyev noted that in 1993, the UN Security Council adopted four resolutions demanding the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh but that Armenia has not implemented them. Talking about the conflict is one way to deflect attention on Azerbaijan’s legendary corruption.
The other nuclear-weapons treaty
The new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into fruition through efforts of nonnuclear nations and civil society this summer, was open to signature on Sept. 20. More than 120 countries adopted the treaty on July 7.
António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, gave a lukewarm endorsement to the treaty when it was realized in July as the world’s most powerful nuclear-armed countries, led by the US, rejected it. On Sept. 20, Guterres said of the signing ceremony: “The Treaty is an important step towards the universally-held goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. It is my hope that it will reinvigorate global efforts to achieve it. Today we rightfully celebrate a milestone. Now we must continue along the hard road towards the elimination of nuclear arsenals.”
As Guterres noted, about 15,000 nuclear weapons exist around the world. With escalated threats lobbed by North Korea and the US toward each other, the treaty may have become more relevant, but that doesn’t mean global leaders who threaten to use their weapons are deterred by this treaty or any other. Trump said in his speech at the General Assembly that he would “totally destroy” North Korea. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
Can violence against women and girls ever rest?
The European Union and the UN announced yet another initiative to spotlight and eliminate violence against women and girls, a scourge that seems hard to stop no matter how many plans are put in place.
Part of the problem is laws or the lack thereof: 37 countries still exempt rapists if they marry their victims, and according to the World Health Organization, at least 1 out of every 3 women experiences sexual violence.
Nevertheless, Secretary-General Guterres and Federica Mogherini, the foreign affairs minister for the European Commission, celebrated Europe’s contribution of 500 million euros, about $590 million, to the cause; that is, “to affect change at the grassroots level and galvanize high level political commitments.”
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, spoke about their personal experiences overcoming gender violence and the importance of educating women. Ziauddin said that because his five sisters and wife could not go to school, he wanted Malala to do so. And Malala said that without her father’s willingness to fight for her education, “I would have been one more of those millions of girls who gets married at age 13 or 14.” — KACIE CANDELA
Remember South Sudan?
Oxfam America’s president, Abby Maxman, just returned from South Sudan, and at the UN’s humanitarian event on the country, she delivered sharp words on the situation there, saying, “In over 30 years working in South Sudan, Oxfam has never responded to such dire needs under such difficult conditions.”
The civil war in South Sudan, which spontaneously combusted soon after it won independence from Sudan in 2011, has continued in fits and spurts, accruing some of the world’s worst atrocities, all committed under the nose of the UN Security Council, which seems to be paralyzed — or helpless — over the fractured state.
“To get the country back on its feet, we must first recognize this conflict for what it is — and what it isn’t,” Maxman said. “It’s not a tribal conflict, because ethnic identity doesn’t determine allegiance on the ground. And it’s not a military conflict, because civilians, not soldiers, are bearing the brunt of the violence. In many ways it isn’t even a political conflict, because that would imply that it’s about competing visions for governing this nation.
“No, this is a hostage situation. We need everyone in this room to throw all of their weight behind inclusive peace efforts. . . . ” — DULCIE LEIMBACH
Wishful thinking? Stopping terrorism via the Internet
Theresa May, the prime minister of Britain, was racing around the UN the last few days, and at one session on Sept. 20, she urged Internet firms to go “further and faster” to stop the spread of terrorist material on their sites. That includes, her statement said, “the development of new technology to stop it from ever appearing on the web in the first place.”
May held the meeting during the General Assembly session with French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. She said that Internet firms — like Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter — can do more to stop the terrorist activities of such groups as ISIS. In particular, she wants them to develop technology to prevent such content being uploaded in the first place.
Britain, France and Italy also said that where terrorist content does appear on the Internet that they want a target of one to two hours for taking it down.
Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter agreed to participate in June to participate in a new Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. Twitter suspended 300,000 accounts for promoting terrorism during the sixth-month period ending June 30, 2017, a 20 percent drop compared with the previous six-month period, the company said in a blog post. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.