NEW YORK – Heads of state from around the world are descending on New York hoping for productive dialogue at this year’s UN General Assembly, set to begin on Tuesday with major speeches from the leaders of Iran and the US. This is the first time in decades that the two governments have agreed to high-level talks.
Leaders welcomed the news as a positive opening salvo to the 68th assembly, as the two parties announced talks between their top diplomats, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif, over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
Israel and the West have vowed to roll back the extensive nuclear enrichment program – suspected to be military in nature – through either diplomacy or force.
The US cut diplomatic relations with Iran after its 1979 revolution brought the Islamic Republic, headed by an ayatollah, into power. The two governments have not engaged directly since, and have instead negotiated through third-party channels such as the Swiss, or in larger forums with other world powers.
A White House official noted to The Jerusalem Post that the meeting is “in the context of the P5+1” and not bilateral talks.
“We remain ready to work with Iran should the Rouhani administration choose to engage seriously,” the State Department said in a statement.
But officials told journalists that the talks were not as groundbreaking as they might appear, given the status of the players involved.
“There’s been some confusion,” a senior State Department official said, noting that Zarif’s attendance at the P5+1 meeting on Thursday was agreed upon at the last minute, and the meeting of the regular members of the P5+1 was already on Kerry’s schedule.
“No one should have the expectation that we’re going to resolve this decades-long issue... going into Thursday,” said an official, adding that the US hopes to find content in Rouhani’s “charm offensive.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D.- New Jersey) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) sent a letter to US President Barack Obama on Monday urging him to seek “verifiable action” from Rouhani, and warning against Iran’s past “use of negotiations as a subterfuge for progress on its clandestine nuclear program.”
“As you prepare to address the United Nations next week in New York, we urge you to make clear the United States’ goal of achieving a diplomatic solution, but also is necessary to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state,” the senators wrote.
The US also sees the UN General Assembly as an important moment in its effort to rid Syrian President Bashar Assad of his massive chemical weapons stockpile.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet on Tuesday to “harmonize” on a deal that will “be turned into a technical document” for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an official said.
“The debate is not about authorizing the use of force,” the senior official said. “It’s about putting a reliable procedure in place.”
High Commissioner of the European Union Catherine Ashton confirmed to reporters on Monday that she had met that morning with Zarif and other Iranian representatives.
In her brief remarks to the press, Ashton said that they spoke about Iran’s nuclear program, and she said there is “energy and determination to move forward on our talks, and many things flow from that.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to address the UN on Tuesday afternoon, but the secretary- general’s spokesman told reporters on Monday that he didn’t have information on when Rouhani would be arriving in New York, nor could he confirm whether the Iranian president would be attending the secretary-general’s opening luncheon for heads of state on Tuesday.
Issues of Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s crisis and chemical weapons are expected to dominate discussions in New York this week.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky confirmed that a trilateral meeting between UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Kerry and Lavrov was likely to take place on Friday to discuss arrangements for a longrumored second Geneva Peace Conference.
Nesirky also said that the UN has “not received any letter from the Syrian National Committee” regarding a request from the Syrian opposition to participate in a Geneva 2 conference.
“We’re aware of the media reports on some kind of communication being sent to someone, but we have not received anything to that effect,” Nesirky said.
He confirmed reports that Syrian opposition fighters in the Golan Heights “Area of Separation” were using stolen blue UN mission helmets while fighting.
“The UN disengagement observer force is aware of reports of looted gear and of protective gear being used by some armed members of the opposition in the area of separation,” Nesirky said, and added that the secretary-general had called the theft of any UN equipment “unacceptable.”
Addressing a question from the Post on the two recent killings of IDF soldiers in the West Bank, Nesirky said that UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry had “condemned the killings” and “emphasized the need for calm on the ground, which is all the more important at this critical moment in the political process.”
Talks between Kerry and Ashton on Monday focused on the Middle East, a senior State Department official said, including the peace process.