Trump and Iran take center stage during U.N. week

“For a Holocaust-denying country that is threatening Israel to compare the United States or its leader to Nazis is among the most outrageous things I have heard," Pompeo said.

September 29, 2018 00:13
US President Donald Trump, representing the United States as current President of the United Nations

US President Donald Trump, representing the United States as current President of the United Nations Security Council, bangs the gavel to open the UN Security Council meeting at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)

NEW YORK – The United Nations’ annual high-level week began this year with a peculiar, half-hearted diplomatic overture that could have come only from Donald Trump, who on Twitter offered his Iranian counterpart something of a compliment.

“Despite requests, I have no plans to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani,” Trump wrote. “Maybe someday in the future. I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man!”

The niceties ended there. Over the course of three days, Rouhani characterized America under Trump as “authoritarian” and with a “Nazi disposition,” leading the world into crisis after crisis and shredding international law in the process. Every member of Trump’s national security team delivered speeches slamming Tehran in different ways, with his top adviser, John Bolton, warning Iran’s generals operating in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq of consequences for their targeting of American soldiers.

“The days of impunity for Tehran and its enablers are over,” Bolton said. “The murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behavior.

“Let my message today be clear,” Bolton added: “We are watching, and we will come after you.”

Trump’s White House may not have a reputation for team unity or policy consistency in Washington, but on this portfolio, the administration executed a clear strategy to hammer Iran throughout a high-stakes week of diplomacy in New York. The president’s concerns with Iranian behavior in the Middle East featured prominently both in his speech to the General Assembly and in his remarks the following day to the Security Council.

“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction. They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations,” Trump said. “Instead, Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond.

“The Iranian people are rightly outraged that their leaders have embezzled billions of dollars from Iran’s treasury, seized valuable portions of the economy and looted the people’s religious endowments, all to line their own pockets and send their proxies to wage war,” Trump continued.

The administration has launched a campaign of economic pressure “to deny the regime the funds it needs to advance its bloody agenda,” he explained, and “will pursue additional sanctions, tougher than ever before, to counter the entire range of Iran’s malign conduct. Any individual or entity who fails to comply with these sanctions will face severe consequences.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the president for following “strong words with strong actions,” in their meeting on the sidelines of the summit on Wednesday, also calling the Iranians murderous and corrupt – at this point common language from the Israeli premier. There was little daylight between the two men on the issue of Iran, although reports in US media claimed that Trump had days earlier warned Bolton – an established Iran hawk– to tone down his rhetoric so as to avoid embroiling him in a war.

At an event hosted by a group that campaigned against the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, called United Against a Nuclear Iran, Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the president’s special envoy on Iran policy, Brian Hook, laid out a comprehensive strategy to cripple the government there. Coinciding with their speeches, the State Department released a 45-page glossy guide to Iran’s “destructive activities,” outlining corruption in its government ranks and its elaborate military campaigns in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

ROUHANI DISMISSED the pressure campaign as “psychological warfare” that was “doomed to fail.”

“The United States’ understanding of international relations is authoritarian,” Rouhani said on Tuesday. “It is ironic that the US government does not even conceal its plan for overthrowing the same government it invites to talks.”

Pompeo hit back in an interview with CBS News.

“For a Holocaust-denying country that is threatening Israel to compare the United States or its leader to Nazis is among the most outrageous things I have heard – and I will tell you, in diplomacy you hear a lot of them,” Pompeo said.

The secretary predicted that Trump’s pressure campaign would be “incredibly effective” at “collapsing” the Iranian economy, noting that Iran’s currency, the rial, is already trading at 150,000 to $1. The goal, according to US officials, is to crush Tehran to such an extent that the Iranians are forced to change their behavior region-wide.

Part of that campaign has been to reimpose sanctions on Iran that were lifted by the 2015 deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. All six other parties to it – France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and Iran – remain committed to the agreement, and at the UN this week outlined plans to circumvent secondary US sanctions that will target foreign businesses that entered the Iranian marketplace once the deal took effect.

In a statement, the remaining parties announced the creation of a “special purpose vehicle” that will “assist and reassure economic operators pursuing legitimate business with Iran,” according to a joint statement released by the group. Details of the SPV were not offered, nor was any explanation of how the mechanism will shield European businesses from exposure to secondary US sanctions.

“To continue to create mechanisms to fund the world’s largest state sponsor of terror is disastrous policy, and I hope they will reconsider it,” Pompeo said. “But most importantly, European businesses are voting with their checkbooks. They are leaving Iran in droves. These sanctions will be effective, they are effective, and come November 4th, they’ll be even more effective.”

November 4 is the final deadline by which foreign entities must leave Iran in order to avoid US sanctions, and will mark the reimposition of Washington’s harshest sanctions on Iran’s oil sector.

Rouhani confirmed in an interview with CNN that Trump has sought his audience for two straight years, since the beginning of his presidency. But US officials say the president is willing to meet him only when the Iranians are prepared to relent on their regional ambitions of holding court in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa. Their hope is that, by the time their sanctions regime is complete and in force, Rouhani will change his tune and, indeed, become an “absolutely lovely man” pleading for relief.

For now, Rouhani is dismissing that possibility.

“The multi-millennial history of our country,” he said this week, “demonstrates that Iran and Iranians have never broken in the face of a storm of events.”

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