Preventing a nuclear Iran and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the two top priorities for the rest of his term, US President Barack Obama told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.
“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,” he said. “While these issues are not the cause of all the region’s problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace.”
Obama said in his speech that Iran’s nuclear program and bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict to a peaceful end would be “primary diplomatic initiatives going forward for the rest of my term.”
“The United States and Iran have been isolated from each other since the Islamic Revolution of 1979,” the president said. “This mistrust has deep roots that can’t be overcome overnight. But if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship, one based on mutual trust and respect.”
Obama emphasized that the US is “not seeking regime change” in Iran but rather, that it should respect the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and said that “conciliatory words have to be matched by actions.”
He then announced that he was directing US Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue the task with the Iranian government in cooperation with the European Union.
After hearing Obama’s speech, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu clarified that his opposition to diplomacy as the best tool to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program stems from his belief that Tehran has no interest in dismantling those weapons.
“Israel would welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. “But we will not be fooled by half-measures that merely provide a smoke screen for Iran’s continual pursuit of nuclear weapons. And the world should not be fooled either.”
As such, Netanyahu said, he appreciated Obama’s statement in his speech that “Iran’s conciliatory words will have to be matched by action that is transparent and verifiable.”
Netanyahu said he looks forward to discussing the matter with Obama when the two leaders meet in Washington next week.
“Iran thinks that soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb,” Netanyahu said. He warned that Iran had learned a lesson from North Korea, which used negotiations with the West to hide its nuclear weapons capability.
Netanyahu noted that it did not bode well that Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani – like his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – denied the Holocaust. Tehran’s new regime has not changed its attitude toward Israel, Netanyahu said.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu instructed the Israeli delegation in New York to boycott Rouhani’s speech, as they had the year before when Ahmadinejad spoke.
“When Iran’s leaders stop denying the Holocaust of the Jewish people, and stop calling for the destruction of the Jewish state and recognize Israel’s right to exist, the Israeli delegation will attend their addresses at the General Assembly,” Netanyahu said.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid said Netanyahu’s decision to have the Israeli delegation to the UN General Assembly walk out during Rouhani’s speech was misguided. He said it was wrong to use the same tactics used against Israel in the past.
“Israel should not let itself be portrayed as a chronic opponent of negotiations and as a state that is not interested in peaceful solutions,” Lapid said.
“We should let Iran be the obstacle to peace and not look like we are not open to change.”
A senior US administration official told reporters that Iran had denied Obama’s request to meet Rouhani “on the sidelines” of the General Assembly.
“We did not have any plan for a formal bilateral meeting here,” the official said. “We indicated that the two leaders could have had a discussion on the margins if the opportunity presented itself. The Iranians got back to us; it was clear that it was too complicated for them to do that at this time, given their own dynamic back home.”
The official emphasized that “nobody contemplated a formal bilateral meeting or a negotiation of any sort.”
“We’re not prepared for heads of state to negotiate or presidents to negotiate on the nuclear issue,” the official continued, saying that the Iranians have their own “internal dynamic” to manage politically at home.
During his speech, Obama also scolded the UN and the Security Council for their inaction on the Syrian crisis, and told the assembled masses of diplomats that since Israeli and Palestinian leaders have “shown a willingness to take risks, the rest of us must be willing to take risks as well.”
Addressing the General Assembly at the start of the UN General Debate, Obama touched briefly on international concerns about the National Security Agency’s international spying – an issue to which Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff devoted part of her speech.
He said that he is “limiting the use of US drones,” but noted that “even a glance at today’s headlines indicates that dangers remain.”
“The destabilization of the Middle East region goes to the heart of the challenge to the international system,” Obama said, touching on the recent attack at a Kenyan mall, the church suicide bomber in Pakistan, and the almost-daily car bombs in Iraq.
Of course, he said, as the camera cut to the Syrian delegation, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction “casts a shadow over the pursuit of peace.”
“It is an insult to human reason and this institution to suggest that anyone other than the [Assad] regime carried out this attack,” Obama said, referring to the August 21 attack on the al-Ghouta suburb of Damascus that killed more than 1,000 people.
“When I stated my willingness to use limited military force, I did not do so lightly,” he said. But he added: “As I’ve discussed with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, diplomacy has always been my preference.”
He called on the UN to strictly enforce the ban on chemical weapons, a ban he said was “older than the UN,” and called on the Security Council specifically to put forth a “strong resolution” to verify that the Syrian president is keeping to his commitments outlined by the Russian- American agreement on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction, and ensuring that there will be consequences if Assad does not comply.
“This is not a zero-sum endeavor. We’re not in a cold war. There’s no great game to be won,” Obama said.
“The United States has no interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbors, the elimination of its chemical weapons and ensuring it does not become a safe-haven for terrorists.”
Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama spoke of the young Israelis in Jerusalem and Palestinians in Ramallah whom he met during his official trip to Israel last February, and how he was inspired by the passion of young Israelis who “believed that peace is just,” and the young Palestinians who were cynical and frustrated that “they have no firm place in the community of nations.”
“The State of Israel is here to stay,” Obama said. “I will never compromise the US’s commitment to Israeli security, nor my support for its existence as a Jewish state.”
But, he added, “The Palestinian people have a right to live with security and dignity in their own sovereign state,” and said that the “continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank is tearing at the democratic fabric of the Jewish state.”
“Let’s emerge from our familiar corners of blame and prejudice,” he said.
“Let’s support the leaders walking the difficult road to peace.”
Obama further emphasized that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not be a magic bullet to bring ultimate stability to the region, but that “real breakthroughs on these two issues [Iran and the Palestinian conflict] would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa.”
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.