Six days after the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran by the United States and high-wire threats sent between President Trump and top officials of Iran, the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council and other nations finally had a chance to speak about the fight in an open forum. As fears lessened that a major Middle Eastern war may lurk around the corner for now, many grievances and regrets, mixed with strands of optimism, were aired in the UN chamber on Jan. 9 over crises far and wide.
Yet it was all too apparent during the debate that the Council was not even close to settling the globe’s latest military attack, especially because it involves a veto-holding power. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the Council, “War is never inevitable; it is a matter of choice — and often it is the product of easy miscalculations.”
It turns out the drone-strike murder of General Suleimani was not in the forefront of most speeches, anyway. Among the permanent-five members of the Council, the US and Russia reinforced their nearly intractable positions on such matters as the use of force and national sovereignty, with little backing down on their Middle East stances and other policies. Britain focused on the value of the UN; while France, another permanent member, emphasized the importance of multilateralism.
China said that recent Middle East tensions have “significantly increased risk of war.” Without naming names, it advised against an “all for me” approach.
On Twitter, the morning portion of the daylong debate rallied many followers around a well-known Irish pacifist: Mary Robinson, a former UN human-rights commissioner, advocate for controlling climate change and ex-president of Ireland. Robinson, as chair of The Elders, a group of pre-eminent global leaders, spoke second at the meeting, after Guterres. (See the UN video below.)
She was direct: “At the start of a new year and a new decade The Elders are clear that the world faces two distinct existential threats: nuclear proliferation, and the climate crisis. Responding to these threats is critical but made harder at a time when multilateral co-operation is being undermined by populism and nationalism.”
Robinson also threw in gender equality, reminding the Council what it may not get. “If women had equal power in the world today, I believe we would have a very different — problem solving — way of dealing with the challenges we face.”
The Council session was never meant to be about the US murder of General Suleimani at the Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3 and whether the US was justified in acting in self-defense in carrying out the killing, based on Article 51 in the Charter. The US argument is unlikely to be satisfied soon, given experts’ varying opinions. And the US has shown no proof so far to the US Congress that Iran was plotting an “imminent attack” against US interests.
One such expert is Hans Corell, a Swede and a former UN under secretary-general for legal affairs and legal counsel of the UN. He said in an email to PassBlue that he was critical of both Iran and the US in this situation, saying the “Iranian behaviour in the region over the past time is simply not acceptable. And, of course, the U.S. is entitled to self-defence against the armed attacks from Iran.”
He added, however, that “the question is if an armed drone attack of the kind that they made on 2 January is legal.” Citing the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute resolution on the use of drones for delivering lethal weapons, he noted that basically, “the use of drones for lethal force is only permissible in a battlefield in accordance with the laws of war.”
“Otherwise it is necessary to prove that it was used under the very strict conditions mentioned in these paragraphs,” Corell added, referring to text in the resolution.
The meeting on Jan. 9 was intended to be about upholding the UN Charter, the founding document of the world body. It was a topic chosen by Vietnam as president of the Council in January, before the General Suleimani death. The subject gave wide berth to nations and analysts to speak about urgent and continuing geopolitical problems.
Oddly, though, it seemed as if the world had not just endured a brutal confrontation between the earth’s most powerful country, the US, and one of its major antagonists, Iran, since speeches covered many fronts and often avoided mentioning recent warmongering. In the immediate days after the US drone strike, a cascade of actions provoked the world to high anxiety — from the threats exchanged between the US and Iran, to Iran saying it would not abide by certain requirements in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, to the retaliatory Iranian missiles attack on Iraq military bases housing US troops.
Events culminated, for now, in Trump’s short address from the White House on Jan. 8, saying, “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”
At the UN, the US strike was not discussed openly until Jan. 6, the Monday after the attack, when only two countries on the Security Council spoke to the media about it: China and Russia. The US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Knight Craft, had released a statement, but it was about China and Russia having blocked a statement condemning the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31. China and Russia told the media they had stopped the statement only because of new circumstances in the Middle East.
The UN issued two statements as well, from Guterres, who did not name Iran or the US but referred to tensions in the “Gulf.” In one, he said he was in constant contact with world leaders and that his message was: “Stop the escalation. Exercise maximum restraint. Re-start dialogue. Renew international cooperation. . . . “
Which brings us to the Jan. 9 Security Council debate that enabled all UN member nations to express their positions on the Iran-US crisis and related scares that shook the world in the first days of the new year.
Buildup to the meeting had also entailed expectations that Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, would speak. He had applied for a visa on Dec. 20 to attend the debate, according to the Iran mission to the UN. But on Jan. 6, Foreign Policy reported that the visa would not be issued. The next day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a news conference and repeated by various parties on Twitter that the US “will always comply with our obligations under the UN requirements & the HQ agreement & will do so in this particular instance.”
He left out one detail: the visa had been denied by the White House. It was left for the UN to tell the Iranians that Zarif’s visa wasn’t coming. Normally, such information is messaged by the US mission to the UN.
Zarif tweeted in response: “Denying me a visa in violation of 1947 UNHQ Agreement pales in comparison to: – Pompeo’s threat to starve Iranians (crime against humanity) -Trump’s bluster about cultural heritage (war crime) -#EconomicTerrorism -Cowardly assassination But what are they really afraid of? Truth?”
Back in the Council, the voices heard during the morning leg of the Jan. 9 debate included all 15 Council members, leaving the rest of the day to remaining nations to speak.
No regret or remorse came from the US on its early January attack in the Middle East, in a speech read by Kelly Knight Craft, the US envoy to the UN, who arrived late to the meeting. Her remarks were preceded by a letter she sent to the president of the Council the night before, justifying the US strike against General Suleimani.
The letter began: “In accordance with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, I wish to report, on behalf of my Government, that the United States has undertaken certain actions in the exercise of its inherent right in self-defense.
“These actions were in response to an escalating series of armed attacks in recent months by the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iran-supported militias on U.S. forces and interests in the Middle East region, in order to deter the Islamic Republic of Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against the United States or U.S. interests. . . . “
In Knight Craft’s speech in the Council, she focused on the UN Charter, reminding the room that the top priority of the US was UN reform, as if to say, the US will not be browbeaten by this international institution.
Then she dived into the Iran topic, repeating much of the letter to the Council, saying, “This decision was not taken lightly. . . . President Trump has made clear that his highest and most solemn duty is the defense of our nation and its citizens. And so, we will act decisively in the exercise of our inherent right of self-defense to protect Americans when necessary, as is recognized under the Charter. As President Trump made clear in remarks delivered yesterday, we want a future — and a great future at that— for Iran. It is a future that people of Iran deserve — one of prosperity at home and harmony with the nations of the world.
“And so today, I want to reiterate that the United States is ready to work toward and embrace people with all who seek it. Moving forward, we hope to find willing partners in this work.”
On an equally ambivalent note, Russia spoke about the many things that it thinks that have gone wrong under the Council’s watch, from accusations of chemical weapons use in the Syrian war to the breakdown of nuclear disarmament treaties to the death of the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Yet Russia said it remained fully committed to the Iran nuclear deal, which the US withdrew from in 2018. And despite the contradiction, given his country’s annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine, the Russian ambassador also said, “Noncompliance with the UN Charter cannot be accepted in any way.”
Britain’s more subdued tone on the Charter emphasized the UN’s value. “Nobody could accuse the founding members of a lack of ambition when they drafted the Charter,” Karen Pierce, the British envoy to the UN, told the Council. “But at times, the United Nations has often suffered from an almost unbridgeable gap between the power of its central vision and the actual actions it has been able to carry out. And by the United Nations, I don’t just mean the UN bodies, but I mean we, the member states, as well. And yet the United Nations takes action that directly affects the lives of millions of ordinary citizens.”
Pierce circled back to the Middle East, adding: “We recognize the right to self-defense. At the same time, we want to see tensions de-escalated. We want to find a diplomatic way through. . . . “
As people drifted out of the Council debate, a European diplomat told PassBlue that the meeting had not only been comprehensive but also positive, because it amounted to this: when people talk, they don’t fight.
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.