What to Expect at the 68th UN General Assembly

By Amanda Sass and Cody Saleh

As the world’s diplomats and leaders head to New York City for the United Nation’s 68th General Assembly that convened on September 17th, there is a glimmer of hope that this meeting will yield crucial progress in three major MENA conflicts. Occupying center-stage this week are Iranian-American relations, Syrian-American-Russian negotiations, and Israeli-Palestinian peace-talk developments.

Watch live and recorded sessions from UN Web TV.

Iranian-American relations

1.     Who will (might) meet?

President Rouhani, in vast contrast to his predecessor Ahmadinejad, stated last week in his opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Gone is the age of blood feuds … A constructive approach to diplomacy … means engaging with one's counterparts." Indeed, with “the blessing of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to shift policy from defiance to reconciliation,” the opportunity to engage with his counterpart might ensue this week.

It is possible that this apparent openness to dialogue has resulted from the letters exchanged between the two leaders in previous weeks regarding American-Iranian relations and a possible nuclear deal. Regardless of what spurred this change in rhetoric, it is not one-sided either.

In an unprecedented move in recent history, U.S. officials have stated that the possibility of sideline talks between President Obama and President Rouhani is not out of the question. Such an interaction, even if brief, would be the mark of a “potent sign of improving relations between the two countries.”

And yet, if the two leaders ultimately do not meet, there is still potential for headway to be made at a high-level. Secretary Kerry is already set to meet his counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif on Thursday. He will be joined by the “foreign ministers of five other world powers in what will be the highest-level direct US-Iranian talks since the Iranian revolution of 1979.” According to Lady Catherine Ashton of the EU, if Thursday’s talks are successful, “diplomats and experts from the negotiating group would meet, then with an Iranian team next month in Geneva to talk about the details of a possible nuclear compromise.”

2. What will Rouhani’s General Assembly speech look like?

For the better part of the past decade, Western diplomats and leaders at the UN General Assembly have walked out of the room when the Iranian president takes the podium. With the newly elected Rouhani now occupying the podium, it is expected that the room might have significantly more seats filled.

Rouhani has already indicated that he wants to “show the true face of Iran.” What that means, is up for question. Many western diplomats “predict that Rouhani's speech Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly will include an important gesture, perhaps an acknowledgment of the Holocaust.”  By making such a statement, Rouhani will attempt to differentiate himself from his predecessor and to demonstrate the sincerity of his desire to reach a deal with Western powers.  Others believe that Rouhani will focus primarily on the plight of the Iranian population as a result of the rounds of crushing sanctions in order to humanize the conflict.

Syrian-American-Russian Negotiations

1.     Will there be any confrontation between American and Russian leaders?

President Obama is expected to push for a Security Council resolution that holds Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable for the timely removal of his chemical weapons. Russia has rejected out of hand any proposal that advocates the use of force as a punishment for violating the terms of the resolution (called a Chapter 7 resolution). Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably push for a Chapter 6 resolution that would require the UN to mediate a violation with the Syrian government - a non-military option.

However, Americans are suspicious that the proposal is a stalling tactic meant to buy time for the Syrian regime. Putin’s comments last week didn’t exactly exude optimism about the likelihood of ratifying a resolution, making skeptics even more suspicious of Russia’s intentions.

Obama’s ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, will be the chief negotiator with the Russians on the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons in her UN debut. Many question whether she is up to the formidable task.

2.     There may be approval of a U.N. resolution backing a U.S.-Russian plan to rid Syria of chemical arms. What will this mean for the potential for American military intervention? http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/23/us-un-assembly-idUSBRE98M05020130923

US Secretary of State John Kerry continues to advocate a political solution, but warned that the threat of US military intervention is still credible. He reiterated America’s commitment to destroying Syria’s chemical weapons in the most efficient and effective manner - criteria that the resolution may not meet if undermined by Assad and supporters. Kerry also acknowledged that the resolution would only be a small step toward ending the Syrian crisis, which doesn’t rule out military intervention under different circumstances at a later date.

3. If the United States pushes a Security Council deal for chemical weapons disarmament that is “legally binding in a way that is verifiable and enforceable,” how will China respond?

China has been firmly following in Russia’s footsteps on Syria and has been engaged with the other permanent members of the Security Council in drafting a resolution. Like Russia, they will veto any resolutions that includes a military option to enforce the agreement, opting for a political solution.  To that end, China has been compliant in helping to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi offering to send experts to help in the destruction process.

Israeli-Palestinian Relations

1.    Will Palestinian leaders use this opportunity as another chance to promote recognition for statehood in the UN?

The simple answer is no. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “is honoring a promise to the U.S. to suspend a Palestinian quest for further U.N. recognition.” This decision for this General Assembly meeting does not mean that such a strategy is off the table in the future. If current negotiations do not deliver an agreement by April, then the Palestinians will again bring a push for UN recognition back on the table.

And yet, the fact that Abbas intends on keeping this promise to Washington might indicate that he believes there is a chance for an agreement to be reached by April. The UN General Assembly has recently been a very important forum for the Palestinian people. Not utilizing this space for its full benefits might imply that there have been serious breakthroughs in the peace talks with its Israeli and American parties.

2.    Will we know anything about the progress of the peace talks?

It is possible. While it is believed that both U.S. diplomats, including Obama, and UN envoys will stress the importance of continuing meaningful and accelerated talks, it is unknown if there will be a glimpse into the developments made thus far into the negotiations from the parties involved.