In the middle of a muggy August afternoon in New York, the United Nations Security Council gathered once more to figure out how to “maintain peace and security” in the Middle East. But the recurring topic always leaves conversations wide open for interpretation by the Council’s 15 members.
The concept by Poland as Council president this month provided direction for the session, noting, among other matters, respecting international law and confronting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, such as the use of chemical weapons.
But on Tuesday afternoon in the air-conditioned Council chamber, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed up at the meeting to mostly concentrate on one of his and the Trump administration’s main bugaboos, Iran.
He got a mediocre reception from the other Council members, who refrained from taking high-handed approaches to the problem called Iran and instead recited calls for dialog and de-escalation of tensions. They criticized Iran for not fully complying with the 2015 nuclear deal and other negative behaviors but used rather accommodating language.
Listing the main challenges in the Middle East, Pompeo said, “And of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies continue to foment terror and unrest in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen with devastating humanitarian consequences.”
Brian Hook, the US envoy for Iran, previewed Pompeo’s visit to the UN by telling reporters that Iran’s “common threat” to the region has rallied strange partners, such as Arabs and Israel.
From the start of the Trump presidency, the US has been venting that Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and that over the last year has been expanding its ballistic missile program, despite restrictions in the Iran deal. The US abandoned the agreement in May 2018, soon after Pompeo became secretary of state.
Yet members of the Council who remain a party to the agreement — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — again reiterated their support of it, saying there is no alternative to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
The US State Department now claims that by the US hitting Iran hard through sanctions and other means, the country has landed in a recession, inflation is nearly up 50 percent and oil exports are down to zero. But these economic effects are not enough for the Trump administration, which also wants the nuclear deal to collapse.
Pompeo came to New York as well to remind the Council that an October 2020 deadline is looming to end arms embargoes on Iran, part of restrictions in the nuclear deal.
But the prevailing topic of how to find peace in the Middle East in the UN session rehashed so many other meetings on the topic that few new ideas emerged, except to “address collectively” the challenges, as the British diplomat said, in a hint to reinforce multilateralism.
Russia was the boldest critic of Pompeo, saying that the US portrayed Iran as an “empire of evil.”
The British also emphasized the need for economic and social development, especially for women, to stabilize the Middle East. As to that major problem in the region, the US was silent, even though Pompeo sat at the Council table in between the British and Belgian diplomats, both women.
Recently, Pompeo has been tweeting to remind US allies and others about the end of certain UN arms and other sanctions against Iran in October 2020, pushing other countries to keep the sanctions in place. In a tweet on Aug. 13, he featured a countdown clock and said, “The clock is ticking. Time remaining before the UN arms embargo on Iran expires . . . “
According to Security Council Resolution 2231, embedding the Iran nuclear agreement, a deadline was set for a series of sanctions to end by Oct. 18, 2020. The resolution required UN member states to abide by numerous limits in doing business with Iran, including weapons sales and training and financial services related to the weapons.
The Security Council session was led by Poland’s foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, who came to the UN earlier in the month to raise the profile of Poland as rotating president of the Council in August. He then traveled to Chicago, which has one of the largest populations of people with Polish descent in the US, after New York. Yet a wave of people with Polish roots is returning to Poland because of better standards of living in the country.
In the Council, Pompeo highlighted the new security project the US forged with Poland that is also about Iran but is referred to as a program on “peace and security” in the Middle East. The program is indeed a new idea but an unknown entity so far, and many big-power countries seem hesitant to jump in.
Poland is currently led by the nationalist Law and Justice party, and the government’s relationship with the US is growing chummier, as the new project between the two nations shows. The plan, announced on Aug. 5, is called the Warsaw Process Working Groups, and it springs from a February conference led by Poland and the US on the Middle East.
That gathering of 65 nations, a number cited by the US, resulted in more of a talkfest than a solid commitment by European countries and other nations to line up behind the goal of the US to ostracize Iran.
The Warsaw groups are centered on “key threats,” the US says, plaguing the region, oddly ignoring the problem of millions of unemployed youths in many of the countries: counterterrorism and illicit finance, missile nonproliferation, maritime and aviation security, cybersecurity, energy security, humanitarian issues and refugees and human rights.
Pompeo established a Commission on Unalienable Rights this summer to review how human rights are handled globally, offering few details on the project. It is unclear if the new commission is part of the human-rights focus in the Warsaw groups.
The arrival of Pompeo at the Council was coupled with a meeting later with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, whose spokesman provided no information by Tuesday evening on the two men’s conversation. The US administration is planning to cut aid to international organizations, including to UN peacekeeping, through a rescission loophole.
The US still has no permanent representative at the UN after Ambassador Nikki Haley left in December 2018. The US has been using its permanent seat in the Council in à la carte fashion, sending Pompeo and other top officials to speak urgently on such crises as Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. (A US acting ambassador has been filling in the role since Haley left.)
Kelly Knight Craft was confirmed by the US Senate as ambassador to the UN on July 31, yet the eight-month-long vacancy remains, the longest such stretch in recent history. The US mission to the UN could not confirm when Knight Craft will be sworn in by the US government. When that happens, she can present her credentials to Guterres and take office. But she is not scheduled to present her credentials this week, and next week Guterres is away.
Pompeo last participated in a Council meeting on Dec. 12, 2018, when he swept in for about an hour to say that Iran was seeking to test and expand its ballistic missile program, which was not news. He said that Iran’s proliferation program included “hundreds” of missiles that threaten its Middle Eastern neighbors. He also said European capitals were vulnerable and that Iran has exported missiles to Yemen, posing threats to US citizens in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital.
None of these threats have come to fruition since Pompeo came to the UN in December.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she 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 near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York 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.