The opening of the United Nations General Assembly this year was of considerable importance in terms of defining the policies of players on the international scene, more so than previous years, when monotony was often the order of the day. To the same extent, the speeches and stances from the world’s leading forum demonstrated that the big issues being dealt with by these players will not see quick solutions, even though the language of diplomacy and openness prevailed, instead of military solutions.
The Middle East dominated the opening of the session, because of the Syrian crisis and its repercussions, and the Iranian nuclear program and the role of Iran. The speeches by the two presidents which caught people’s attention, Barack Obama and Hassan Rohani, indicated how difficult it will be to arrive at solutions and how slow this process will be, if the political movement to translate these solutions into reality is launched after these two speeches.
Obama did not hide this, after he spoke about the positives in the Iranian position that could be built on. He said these would lead to negotiations that will require time to overcome the decades of hostility, noting that “the hard work of forging democracy and freedom (in the region) is a task of a generation.”
For his part, the Iranian president was not in a big rush to act, in contrast to the hints from his statements prior to his speech and the considerable activity that preceded his trip to New York by months, undertaken by a large Iranian team with huge experience in public relations. They formed an active lobbying operation between Washington and the UN headquarters in New York, along with leading think tanks. This was in order to invite people with influence over US decision-making to benefit from Rohani’s openness and find solutions for the hostility between the two countries. Rohani issued an invitation to arrive at a formula for managing disputes based on mutual respect and called for peace to win out over war. He also affirmed that he supported negotiations to remove doubts (over Tehran’s intentions to possess nuclear weapons) and was against compromising on the uranium enrichment issue. By doing so, he wanted to confirm to the United States and the west that their policies “deprive regional players of their natural domain of action.” This hinted at a hard-line stance vis-à-vis the influence Iran has gained in the region. All of this was at odds with the charm and magic that was used by Rohani’s team and his foreign minister Mohammad Zarif, in the public relations campaign that they undertook in the media, and in think tanks.
Despite the “new method” that Washington believes Rohani seeks to rely on, he preferred caution in choosing his words and phrases denoting openness. He preferred to abandon the “coincidence” of meeting with Obama in the halls of the UN, which had been worked on by Rohani’s team. This would avoid angering the hard-liners in his country, after the Revolutionary Guard warned the Iranian president about trusting in US policy, one day before he traveled to New York. Rohani also failed to hide his caution during some of his closed-door meetings when it came to the difficulty of arriving at agreements over pending issues on the regional scene, from Bahrain to the Gulf, and Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, when he undertakes his expected trip to Saudi Arabia in the middle of October. This visit is expected to lead to a ratcheting down of hostility between the two countries.
Rohani was not alone in addressing his own public, whether with his cautious speech or behavior. Obama himself did the same thing, when he addressed the world’s leaders in the General Assembly hall. He responded to the criticism of some that America is weak, because it has retreated from the wars it waged in Iran and Afghanistan. Obama strongly defended his return to threatening the use of force after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on 21 August. Obama also tried to dispel the image that he is hesitant and weak-willed, which is hurting his popularity at home. Obama partly turned his back on the Middle East because of his country’s failures in Iraq and as it prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, in order to pay attention to the domestic economic situation and prepare for a strategic change toward Asia and the Pacific over the next decade, because this is where his country’s interests lie. The Syrian chemical weapons issue has forced Obama to turn back once again to the Middle East, even if for a period of time, from now until the end of his term in 2016. However, his return to paying attention to the region, as he has said, has limits. “We are not alone,” he said, because he prefers to act along with other influential countries. This principle is in contradiction to the policy of George W Bush and his “preventive wars.”
Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian foreign minister, summed up the prospects for diplomatic solutions on the occasion of the General Assembly, where the Syrian crisis was the central topic. On Tuesday, he told Al-Hayat, “I see no quick solution for the crisis in Syria, because the solution requires a grand bargain, and this will take time.”
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily represent or reflect the editorial policy of Arab Today.