The overt hostility between Israel, the U.S. and Iran at the 67th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) which began on September 18th in New York was anticipated.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned against Iran in his speech to the Assembly, asking the Heads of States to imagine “Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons.” Supporting the Israeli stance, U.S. President Barack Obama, who will face a presidential election in November, called Iran’s nuclear ambitions a threat to the security of the region and in particular a threat to Israel. In his speech, Obama warned the Assembly that a nuclear-armed Iran “is not a challenge that can be contained.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opposed these positions. In what is likely to be his final speech at the UNGA, he emphasised the threat from the “uncivilized Zionists” of a military strike against Iran. At his first General Assembly speech, the Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi said “the Palestinian cause” is the first issue which “the world must exert all its efforts in resolving, on the basis of justice and dignity.”
Iran’s controversial nuclear programme has been at the centre of international discussions for close to a decade. Even with the shifting realities of West Asia and, in particular, in the midst of the civil war in Syria, the issue of a nuclear Iran continues to be a priority for Israel and for its ally, the U.S. Is a focus on a nuclear Iran at this time in international forums such as the UNGA necessary and appropriate?
Moreover, the UNGA’s failure to prioritise and adequately address the multiple crises in West Asia once again highlights the need to rethink and reform the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in response to emerging global dynamics.
The prioritisation of Iran’s nuclear controversy at a time when other crises – including Syria and Palestine – require the world’s undivided attention raises two major concerns.
Firstly, even if Iran’s nuclear programme is indeed a ticking bomb, can verbal exchanges of hostility at a forum of world leaders result in pragmatic and constructive resolutions for this potential security risk? If anything, such speeches should serve as a warning to the world that global forums such as the UNGA are used by a handful of politicians to push forward their political agendas. In fact, when mechanisms such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are specifically addressing Iran’s nuclear programme, should the UNGA focus on this issue at this time?
A benign interpretation of the focus on Iran at the UNGA would be that the hype was an indication that Israel and the U.S. will not launch a military strike against Iran in the immediate future. Both Netanyahu and Obama implied that Iran’s nuclear programme has not reached critical proportions, and that the probability of a military strike is still years or at least months away.
Displaying a simplistic diagram of Iran’s nuclear bomb, Netanyahu said that by “next spring, at most next summer” Iran will complete “medium enrichment,” at which point it will move on to the “final stage.” As such, his possible military strike against Iran is unlikely before mid-2013. Obama too indicated that the U.S will not start another war in the midst of an election in November 2012. Emphasising that the U.S. wants to resolve Iran’s nuclear issue through “diplomacy,” Obama is perhaps trying to gain diplomatic support for an eventual military strike against Iran.
All this brings back bitter memories. Less than a decade ago, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented rudimentary graphs at the UN which depicted Iraq’s alleged chemical weapons. Powell was preparing the world for the war against Iraq in 2003. Nine years later, history may be repeating itself, with the UN playing a facilitating role.
Secondly, the overwhelming focus on Iran’s nuclear controversy raises concerns about the ability, or even the willingness, of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the UNGA to adequately address the critical crises of West Asia and beyond.
The Palestinian question has remained neglected for decades and the Syrian crisis is growing. At such a time, the UN must prioritise these issues. Even though UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the world leaders to pay special attention to the Syrian crisis at the 67th General Assembly, the Assembly did not seek constructive solutions to the conflict in Syria or to the Palestinian question.
Until these two issues are addressed, West Asia will remain turbulent. In fact, with the major political shifts in the region and the emergence of democratically-elected heads of states after the Arab uprisings, now is the time for the UN to facilitate pragmatic solutions to the security challenges of West Asia.
But the UNGA’s failure to offer practical roadmaps to resolve the crises of the region once again underlines the urgency of the reform of the UN system, especially the UNSC. The urgency of the UNSC reform has been repeatedly raised by India, Brazil, Japan and Germany, all democracies and aspiring to be members of the reformed UNSC. There is an imbalance of power between the UNGA and the UNSC. For instance, despite numerous UNGA resolutions over the years, the UNSC has failed to implement them on the Palestinian issue. The continuous focus on Iran even obscured Egyptian President Morsi’s suggestion that a group of four regional nations (Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) forge a solution in Syria.
As long as the archaic structure of the UN remains unchanged, the UNGA will not be a space for collective solutions to global security challenges. Rather, it will remain a forum where leaders give speeches while their real agendas are pushed through the UNSC.
Azadeh Pourzand is a Senior Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.