The following is a round up of statements by Middle Eastern leaders and President Barack Obama from day one (September 24) of the 68th United Nations General Assembly.
President Obama’s General Assembly speech focused almost exclusively on the Middle East. The President defended U.S. policy in Syria, before explaining his administration’s broader approach to the region.
The President first remarked that the conflict in Syria suffers from the convergence of a number of troubling trends that have afflicted other transitions in the region: “Peaceful movements have too often been answered by violence — from those resisting change and from extremists trying to hijack change. Sectarian conflict has reemerged. And the potential spread of weapons of mass destruction continues to cast a shadow over the pursuit of peace.”
President Obama then tied the legitimacy of the United Nations to a chemical weapons ban in Syria, praising international efforts to secure a deal to that end. However, he noted, “Now there must be a strong Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments, and there must be consequences if they fail to do so. If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.” Obama then expressed hope that the chemical weapons agreement will pave the way for a “a larger diplomatic effort to reach a political settlement within Syria.”
Iran and the Middle East Peace Process
President Obama next turned to two other key priorities in the region, stating: “In the near term, America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict… Real breakthroughs on these two issues … would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa.” With respect to Iran, Obama noted that Iran has made positive steps, but that “conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.” Obama also remarked, “Given President Rouhani’s stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government… The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”
Broader Middle East Policy
Last, the President outlined U.S. interests in the region. He first described “core interests,” including: confronting external aggression against allies, ensuring the free flow of energy, dismantling terrorist networks, and preventing the “development or use of weapons of mass destruction.”
In guarding these core interests while promoting a prosperous, peaceful and democratic Middle East, Obama admitted that “The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations.” But he pledged: “Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals.” Ultimately Obama concluded: “I believe America must remain engaged [in the region] for our own security. But I also believe the world is better for it.”
President Hassan Rouhani began his speech by condemning the actions of Western superpowers in the global order, believing them to be an attempt to maintain Western dominance over the rest of the world. Rouhani noted, “Coercive economic and military policies and practices geared to the maintenance and preservation of old superiorities and dominations have been pursued in a conceptual mindset that negates peace, security, human dignity, and exalted human ideals.” He claimed that one effect of Western behavior is the perpetuation of an “Iranian threat,” which Rouhani called “imaginary.”
President Rouhani then addressed specific Western policies in the Middle East, criticizing the “structural violence” against the Palestinian people, the “pursuit of expansionist strategies and objectives and attempts to change the regional balance through proxies” in Syria, the use of “violence and extreme actions such as the use of drones” as part of counterterror policies, and the implementations of sanctions against Iran, which Rouhani called “intrinsically inhumane and against peace.”
Last, President Rouhani addressed Iran’s nuclear program, again reaffirming that “nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions.” Rouhani insisted that the international community show “acceptance of and respect for the implementation of the right to enrichment inside Iran and enjoyment of other related nuclear rights.” If the international community displays respect and cooperation, Rouhani pledged that Iran would “engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency.”
President Michel Sleiman addressed two regional conflicts that have a negative effect on Lebanon: the Syrian crisis and the Israeli-Arab conflict. With regards to Syria, Sleiman admitted, “Despite the decision of disassociation agreed upon by the National Dialogue Committee through the ‘Baabda Declaration’… some conflicting Lebanese parties have been involved in the ongoing conflict on the Syrian territories.” This involvement, Sleiman said, “has coincided with terrorist bombings against civilians” throughout Lebanon. Sleiman also requested additional assistance from the international community to manage the influx of Syrian refugees, and he promoted the idea of creating safe spaces within Syria to absorb these refugees. Ultimately, President Sleiman pushed for “a political solution for the Syrian crisis, which would ensure a safe and dignified return of the Refugees to their country, as soon as possible.”
President Sleiman also identified the Israeli-Arab conflict as Lebanon’s “main challenge.” He called for further implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which would help with the consolidation of “the foundations of stability and security in South Lebanon, and [contribute] to [the] spreading State authority all over the territory.” Sleiman pushed for a peace resolution along the line of the Arab Peace Initiative, arguing that “there shall be no stability, democracy and moderation in the Middle East without justice in Palestine.”
Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul focused the majority of his speech on the Syrian civil war, criticizing President Assad for his handling of the crisis. President Gul expressed support for the agreement between Russia and the U.S. on Syria’s chemical weapons, but emphasized, “That agreement has to be translated into a tangible UN Security Council resolution,” and “This conflict neither began with the use of chemical weapons, nor will it end with an agreement to eliminate them.” Instead Gul urged the international community to keep working towards a “political strategy to address the situation in Syria.”
King Abdullah II also spent the majority of his short speech on Syria. King Abdullah stated, “Syria’s future will depend on the Syrian people. But the world has the duty, the interest, and the power to help. And help must be soon.” He requested additional assistance to help Jordan absorb the Syrian refugees, noting “Not even the strongest global economies could absorb this demand on infrastructure and resources, let alone a small economy and the fourth water-poorest country in the world.”
King Abdullah also touched upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he argued “consumes resources that are needed to build a better future, and feeds the flames of extremism around the world.” He expressed his support for the current negotiations and his hope for a two-state solution along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative.
The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin AI-Thani, began his speech by criticizing Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but also pledging his support for a two-state solution along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative.
Sheikh Al-Thani then spoke on the subject of Syria, arguing “We all know that the responsibility for failure to impose the political settlement we all prefer for Syria is due basically to the inability of the Security Council to take the required decision to stop the bloodshed and the continued intransigence of the Syrian regime and its refusal of all regional and international initiatives.”