Five things to watch at this Middle East-heavy United Nations General Assembly

Five things to watch at this Middle East-heavy United Nations General Assembly
What to expect this week from the UN podium and the from the private side meetings - where the real deals are always made.
7 min read
24 September, 2018
President Trump raises a glass with Japanese Prime Minister Abe at last year's UNGA [AFP]
It is not unusual for the annual gabfest of world leaders in New York to focus heavily on the Middle East, but that is particularly true in 2018, as Syria, Iran and Yemen are already dominating a packed agenda at UN headquarters.

Many of the big names in Middle East politics are making the pilgrimage to Manhattan, from Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim al-Thani to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.

Once there, all eyes will most likely be on US President Donald Trump, who last year used his address before the UN General Assembly to threaten to "totally destroy" North Korea and to roll out his "America First" foreign policy agenda.

Trump's push to denuclearise North Korea has gained some traction in recent months, but his unilateral decisions to tear up the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital are viewed sceptically in foreign capitals.

Jon Alterman, an analyst and former US State Department official, told The New Arab that Washington's friends and foes alike were trying to sidestep the Trump administration and pursue foreign policy goals on their own terms.

"It's unlikely that any leaders will confront Trump, but we are likely to see many seeking to undermine him quietly. They think that his America First policies are taking the entire world in the wrong direction," Alterman told The New Arab.

As the diplomatic jamboree got underway at UN headquarters on Monday, The New Arab asked analysts what they expected this week from the UN podium and from the private, bilateral meetings where the real deals are made.
Washington's friends and foes alike are trying to sidestep the Trump administration and pursue foreign policy goals on their own terms

5: Rouhani and Trump

The biggest question mark surrounds Rouhani and Trump. The two men will speak from the same marble dais on Tuesday; the US plans to badmouth Tehran at a Security Council meeting on Wednesday - but will they meet?

Photographers are on standby to snap Trump and Rouhani passing each other in a corridor, shaking hands or even flashing each other a quizzical glance.

Despite Trump's stated willingness to talk business with any rival, a sit-down between these leaders still looks unlikely.

Trump pulled out of the nuclear accord with Tehran in May and has since been re-imposing sanctions that have hammered Iran's economy. The US demands that the clerical elite stops flexing its muscles in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

The war of words between the long-standing enemies worsened after an attack on a parade of Revolutionary Guard troops in the south-western city of Ahvaz on Saturday that left 25 people dead, including soldiers and civilians.

"The US will devote as much time and energy as it can to Iran and to making the case for the European Union to withdraw from the nuclear deal," John Cristol, a scholar at Adelphi University, told The New Arab.

"But countries will be more focused on the wars in Yemen and Syria than on Iran."

For Heather Conley, a former US State Department official and expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank, European efforts to maintain the Iran deal after the US pull out are floundering.

"Europeans are trying to fill that gap and they just simply cannot. They can flirt with Beijing, certainly there are openings to Moscow, but Europe is so firmly tied to Washington that it cannot meaningfully balance against the US and its policies," Conley told The New Arab.

The US will devote as much time and energy as it can to Iran and to making the case for the European Union to withdraw from the nuclear deal

4: Trump's elusive 'peace deal'

Much like last year, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are likely to heap praise on one other - both men view Iran as a threat, and Trump's decision on Jerusalem and other Israeli-Palestinian issues are widely seen as favouring the Jewish state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will also attend. He often uses the UN to spotlight his legal case against Israeli violations of Palestinian rights when sitting down with Israeli or Trump administration envoys gets him nowhere.

Nevertheless, Abbas is still reeling from Washington's recent decisions to slash funding for Palestinian refugees and shutter Ramallah's embassy in Washington, and has already declared Trump's long-awaited and elusive peace plan dead on arrival.

But it could get worse for him. Few analysts expect Trump to unveil the peace plan at the UN, but some speculate he will declare his belief that Palestinians who fled their lands during Israel's creation in 1948 should no longer have the "right of return" - a long-held hope for many Palestinians enshrined in international law.

Comment: Ending UNRWA aid does not end the right of return

"On Palestine, US policy has walked away from where the rest of the world is, by defunding UNRWA and other organisations and projects," said Alterman, referencing the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees.

"We're going to see a world that's going to try and replace the US without confronting it."

French President Emmanuel Macron meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in preparation for a discussion at the UN on funding for UNRWA [Getty]
On Palestine, US policy has walked away from where the rest of the world is, by defunding UNRWA and other organisations and projects

3: Putting out the Middle East's fires

Once again, diplomats will be sipping lattes in midtown Manhattan while body bags pile up in Yemen, Syria and Libya - three Middle Eastern conflicts that have dragged on for longer than expected and have proven stubbornly resistant to peacemakers.

Western leaders will doubtless continue pressing envoys from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his backers in Russia and Iran, to minimise civilian deaths as it retakes rebel-held Idlib province, and to bolster Turkish-Russian demilitarisation efforts there.

Read also: Idlib: Will Syria's last major battle be its deadliest?

They are also likely to direct similar messages to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who leads a military coalition backing Yemen's government against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in a war in which both sides are accused of atrocities.

"European powers will try to exert pressure on Saudi Arabia to, at the very least, change its tactics in Yemen," Cristol told The New Arab.

"The thinking will be that the US may not care enough to veto on Riyadh's behalf, or that a US veto in the Security Council will shame the US."

2: Qatar centre stage

Ever since Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and others severed travel and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017 over allegations of supporting terrorism - which Doha strenuously reject - the US State Department has tried to heal the rift between its resource-rich Gulf allies.

Plans for a confab with Trump at Camp David have repeatedly been pushed back, including a summit that was pencilled in for this month. Instead, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani of Qatar, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and other key players in the row will be in New York at the same time.

Al-Thani is expected to once again use his primetime spot on the first day of General Debate speeches on Tuesday to blast Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for running a pointless and ruinous boycott when they should be cooperating on Syria and other crises.

Read also: Is the Saudi-led Gulf crisis undermining America's 'war on terror'?

1: North Korean nuclear weapons

Of course, leaders will be tackling issues beyond the Middle East, including revived efforts to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile technology in exchange for relief from crippling UN sanctions and other incentives.

Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June and, in the past week, Kim promised South Korean President Moon Jae-in he would dismantle a missile site and a nuclear complex if the US were to take "corresponding action".

Moon is set to debrief Trump on those talks at UN headquarters and discuss what action Kim has in mind - though it likely relates to a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 war and/or the 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea to deter North Korean attacks.

Michael Green is a CSIS Asia expert and former National Security Council officer, and says Pyongyang is continuing its well-established tradition of out-manoeuvring Washington in decades-old nuclear disarmament talks.

"It's like we were negotiating to buy their Dodge Dart and a Ford pickup for 30 years, and now they've told us, now that they're on cinderblocks in the front lawn, we can have them. But we know they've got a Lexus and a BMW in the garage and they won't let us at them," Green told The New Arab.

James Reinl is a journalist, editor and current affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 30 countries and won awards for covering wars in Sri Lanka, Congo and Somalia, Haiti's earthquake and human rights abuses in Iran.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesreinl