President Donald Trump chaired a United Nations Security Council meeting on stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction and seized the occasion again to lambaste Iran, which he had earlier this month intended to make the sole focus of the Sept. 26 session.
Pushback came from most of the other Council members, who defended the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump has withdrawn the United States. A few members, such as Bolivia, were overtly critical of the US, notably for its rejection of multilateralism at the UN, stance toward Iran and trade dispute with China.
Trump led the Council meeting because the US sits in the rotating presidency this month, and his role was much-reported on long before he entered the chamber on Wednesday. The US mission to the UN, led by Ambassador Nikki Haley, announced weeks ago that the Sept. 26 meeting would focus on a single topic, Iran, but the White House reconsidered, having realized that the debate would be required by Council rules to allow Iran a right to reply.
That possibility suggested to White House planners that the debate could turn rancorous if not embarrassing for Trump and all other Council members, considering that the Europeans, China and Russia continue to defend and preserve the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, while the US withdrew from it last spring.
Within days, the topic was switched to a broader nonproliferation issue: encompassing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The topic also left it unlikely that a document, like a presidential statement or a legally binding resolution, would result from the meeting because that would have required negotiating among the Council members. (In another change, the White House press release, issued after the meeting, called its focus “counterproliferation.”)
Trump, speaking first in his national capacity in the Council, criticized the Iran deal, accused China of interfering in America’s 2018 and potentially 2020 elections because of the trade war and complimented the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He was critical of countries for not complying with UN sanctions against North Korea but didn’t name the nations.
“The safety of the Korean Peninsula, the region and the world, depends on full compliance with Security Council resolutions,” Trump said. “Very, very important. But most importantly, I believe that Chairman Kim Jong Un, a man I have gotten to know and like, wants peace and prosperity for North Korea.”
He implied that negotiations are taking place that are not being reported on.
“Many things are happening behind the scenes, away from the media, which nobody knows, but they are happening nonetheless, and they are happening in a very positive way,” Trump said. “So I think you will have some very good news coming from North Korea in the coming months and years.”
Trump also reiterated that US sanctions against Iran — which kick in on Nov. 4 and put companies that buy Iranian oil, for example, in violation of the penalties — as the only way to safeguard against Iran producing nuclear weapons, regardless that the Iran nuclear deal, which President Obama negotiated to completion in 2015, has kept Iran from making such weapons.
“All U.S. nuclear-related sanctions will be in full force by early November,” Trump said. “They will be in full force. After that, the United States will pursue additional sanctions, tougher than ever before, to counter the entire range of Iran’s malign conduct. Any individual or entity who fails to comply with these sanctions will face severe consequences. I ask all members of the Security Council to work with the United States to ensure the Iranian regime changes its behavior and never acquires a nuclear bomb.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran, has repeatedly said the Iranians are complying with the nuclear deal. In the Council, the president of Poland, Andzrei Duda, a friend of the US, complimented the IAEA on its work and urged all countries to stand behind it.
Although the general tone in the Council lacked harsh criticism — and felt anticlimactic after all the media attention anticipating the gathering — American allies expressed their full support for the JCPOA, including Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, President Emmanuel Macron of France and the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi.
May called the nuclear deal, of which her country is a party, an “important step forward, as long as Iran continues to abide by its obligations.”
“The Iran deal remains the best means for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon,” she said.
Macron, perhaps the most vociferous of the Europeans on the matter, directly rebutted Trump, saying that sanctions alone can’t solve the problem of Iran’s so-called “malign behavior,” in the Middle East. (France is a party to the JCPOA, as are Germany, China, Russia and the European Union.)
Yi called it a “hard-won achievement of multilateralism,” adding, “what happened in the past three years shows that JCPOA is a viable agreement.”
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said if the JCPOA were fully dismantled — a possibility as the US sanctions ensue — “we could end up with a situation that is more unstable in the Middle East” and would hurt nonproliferation on the Korean peninsula.
Other countries were directly disapproving of the US. Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, accused America of not caring about human rights and justice, citing the withdrawal of the US from the UN Human Rights Council and threatening the investigative mechanisms of the International Criminal Court.
More tension arose in the Council between Britain and Russia on the Salisbury attack in England, when a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned — allegedly by Russian agents — with a nerve agent, Novichok, but recovered. Two other people, British citizens, were inadvertently poisoned by handling material contaminated with the same agent; one of them died.
May concentrated on the Salisbury attack, saying: “The UK saw the consequences of these norms being eroded in Salisbury this year, when Russia recklessly deployed a nerve agent on our streets. The United Kingdom has presented detailed evidence, clearly laid out in charges of attempted murder and the use and possession of a chemical weapon against two agents of the Russian state. We have taken appropriate action, with our allies, and we will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure our collective security. Russia has only sought to obfuscate through desperate fabrication.”
In defense, Lavrov took the same route his country has followed since the Salisbury attack, accusing Britain of avoiding a joint investigation on the crime, despite various international statutes and agreements mandating it.
“Do they have something to hide?” Lavrov asked, calling for a “constructive dialogue to find out the truth.”
Although he didn’t refer to the poisoning, Trump said about the use of chemical weapons, which the Syrian government has been accused of using repeatedly during its civil war and which the US has responded with military strikes:
“Since my inauguration, the United States has taken bold action to confront these sinister threats. Many of us are rightly focused on the dangers of nuclear weapons, but we must never forget the risk posed by biologically and chemical weapons. The United States was one of the first nations to unilaterally renounce the use of biological weapons, and since World War I we have led international efforts against the scourge of chemical warfare.”
Trump’s Big Joke
President Trump held a media briefing in New York on Sept. 26 at a Midtown hotel, explaining to reporters why his speech in the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25 evoked laughter:
“I heard smiles. . . They [world leaders] weren’t laughing at me, they were laughing with me. We had fun. That was not laughing at me. We were doing it together. They respect what I’ve done. The United States is respected again.”
At the first solo press conference he has held this year, Trump displayed his deftness at diversion — beyond his explanation for the world mocking him.
He was asked, for example, which was more damaging: the interference of China or Russia in America’s electoral process. Trump began to answer, saying, “It’s different, the Des Moines Register has ads made to look like editorials, and on a network which doesn’t treat me very good, they interviewed farmers.” He then pivoted to Nafta, China buying more soybeans and how American farmers, who like him, are patriots.
He used his diversionary tactics often in the conference, which was primarily devoted to his controversial Supreme Court justice nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. When asked about the message that his ardent support for Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault and other misconduct, sent to women in the US, Trump launched into a screed against the Democrats.
Trump did admit that his support for Kavanaugh was partly influenced by how the media treated Trump for what he claimed were false sexual misconduct accusations against him, a point Trump revisited several times to the press. Trump admitted that in the US, women were angry, saying: “Women are so angry, and I frankly think that, I think they like what the Republicans are doing.
“I mean I have men who don’t like it, but I mean. The women are incensed. I’ve always said that women are smarter than men, and I mean it.”
The few foreign policy points he touched on, between mentions of trade imbalances, his fiscal successes and the dishonest, fake media – – “a lot of the people sitting here are fake,” Trump said, adding, “but 20 percent are wonderful” — were startling: he turned down a one-on-one meeting with Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, at the UN because ” . . . we don’t like their negotiation style, I love Canada by the way.”
He added, “Canada has treated us very badly,” lamenting a dairy-product tariff of 300 percent. “How do you sell at 300 percent? You can’t compete.”
Trump claimed that he had prevented the siege of Idlib, Syria, after meeting a woman at a campaign rally in the Midwest, who told him her sister was going to die there. “I didn’t hear of Idlib, I came back to New York, picked up the failing New York Times, and opened it up . . . there was a very big story, and I said wow that’s the same story the woman told me and I found hard to believe. . . . It said 3.5 million people could be killed to get 35,000 terrorists.”
Trump continued to claim that it was his social-media posts, as well as orders to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others in his cabinet, to “not let it happen. Don’t kill millions of people.”
Trump continued, “Nobody is going to give me credit but that’s O.K., because the people know. . . . “
On China: “I love China, I think they’re great. You know who’s great now, we’re great now.”
On Iran: He hit the same points he has used throughout the life of his administration, confident that US sanctions against Iran will prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon (which the International Atomic Energy Agency has certified Iran is not doing).
“It doesn’t matter what world leaders think on Iran, Iranian leaders are going to come back to me and make a great deal. They’re suffering, riots in every city . . . far greater than under Obama.”
On Israel, Trump said the path to peace was the two-state solution, likening the solution to completing a real estate deal. “I think two-state will happen; in one way it’s different because it’s a real estate deal,” Trump said. “It takes two groups of people to be happy, everybody’s got to be happy, I’m happy if they’re happy, I want to see a deal done so people don’t get killed.”
He linked the success of the deal to the king of Saudi Arabia, “who is a great guy, King Solomon.” — LAURA E. KIRKPATRICK
Confessions on gender inequality
Across the street from the UN, in a side event that was strikingly humble and productive in contrast to key events on the river side of First Avenue, the missions of Germany, Spain and Namibia hosted a talk on “The Security Council and Women, Peace and Security: Fostering Practical Action.”
The talk was a high-level event of the WPS Focal Points Network, founded in 2016 to engage governments and organizations in accomplishing the goals of the women, peace and security agenda — ensuring parity for women in peace processes, among other ambitions.
After initial remarks by Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitway represented Namibia as a major sponsor of the network and opened the discussion of spheres where gender issues need to be introduced by reminding the audience that peace must not only be fought for in conflict areas, but also in people’s homes.
In turn, Josep Borrell, Spain’s foreign affairs minister – another founder of the association – vaunted his country’s majority-female cabinet (at 64.7 percent), and announced a roadmap that Spain and Finland will be drafting to seek more participation by women by 2025.
For the rest of the meeting, structured refreshingly like a group confessional, ministers and others shared their successes and failures in advancing gender equality in the security environment. It was a good, far-ranging list, and often pointed to how high the stakes are.
Tanya Gilly-Khailany from the Iraqi Kurdistan region, who was a major force in getting 25 percent women’s presence on the provisional councils in Iraq, spoke of an activist in Basra killed recently, possibly targeted because of her work. She reminded the audience, “ISIS is being tried for terrorism, but not for violence against women.”
National action plans are the toolkits that governments use to hold themselves accountable to their own goals. Bangladesh elaborated on its plan, which it is finishing with the help of UN Women, citing its 144 deployed female peacekeepers and its commitment to continue increasing that number.
Afghanistan, speaking of the need not just more jobs for women in security, also pointed out that “we also need better work environments, to make it easier for them to stay.”
The open nature of the discussion allowed for a creativity in responses that reacted to a point made by a representative from Japan: “Awareness is an issue — what is equality actually about?” — MARIA LUISA GAMBALE
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Kacie Candela is an assistant editor for PassBlue and a news anchor and reporter with WFUV, a public radio station in the Bronx, N.Y., where she covers the UN and other beats. Her work has won various awards from the New York State Associated Press Association, New York State Broadcasters Association, PRNDI, and the Alliance for Women in Media.