News Column

Obama on Syria: U.N.'s Credibility on the Line

September 24, 2013

U.S. President Obama, in a speech Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly, used unusually tough language on Syria and welcomed Iran's diplomatic initiative.

Most of the president's speech dealt with the Middle East.

Obama said the Bashar Assad regime used sarin gas on its own people Aug. 21, launching missiles from government-held areas into rebel-held neighborhoods. To suggest Assad did not launch the attack, Obama said, was an "insult to intelligence."

In the face of such an atrocity, "the Security Council had indicated no inclination to act at all," he said.

Assad has agreed to a Russian-U.S. plan to get rid of his chemical weapons, Obama told the delegates.

"Now there must be a strong Security Council resolution that Assad is keeping those agreements," Obama said, with the threat of punishment if he does not.

If the council does not take those actions, "it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international law," Obama said.

Obama stressed peace had to come from the Syrian people, and said the United States was not seeking regime change. But he said Assad could not restore "the status quo" after the civil war ends and continue to lead his people.

On Iran, Obama said he has directed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to follow up overtures from the Iranians to develop a new relationship.

The president said there has been much distrust between the United States and Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight," Obama said, but the two countries have to make a start.

Obama said the United States is determined not to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons, and friendly words would have to be followed by verifiable actions.

Obama and Iran's president are both to attend a U.N. General Assembly luncheon Tuesday, but the White House insisted no exchange was scheduled.

Obama is to participate in the annual luncheon of world leaders hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the White House said Monday evening.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has engaged in several weeks of charm diplomacy suggesting a desire to improve relations with the United States and the West in general, is also to participate in the 1:15 p.m. luncheon in the U.N. Conference Building, between the General Assembly building and the Secretariat.

That luncheon -- in a large room with big glass windows facing New York's majestic East River on one side and an oil canvas mural depicting a phoenix rising from its ashes hanging in the front -- is widely seen as an opportunity for the two leaders to have at least a brief exchange.

An Obama-Rouhani exchange would mark the first meeting between a U.S. and Iranian leader since President Jimmy Carter met with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in December 1977, 14 months before Iran's Islamic Revolution.

The United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran April 7, 1980. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Tehran while Pakistan represents Iranian interests in Washington.

The White House repeated Monday Obama was "open to engagement" with Rouhani.

"He's exchanged letters with Rouhani," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president to New York.

"We simply have not had a meeting scheduled," he said.

Rhodes said Obama has expressed his willingness since his 2007 pre-election campaign "to engage the leaders of Iran in pursuit of an agreement" in which Iran proves its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.

Washington and U.S. allies allege Iran is well along toward developing a nuclear weapon, but Tehran insists its nuclear activities are only to produce electricity and for medical research.

Western diplomats predict Rouhani's speech will be conciliatory and include an important gesture, such as an acknowledgment of the Holocaust -- a sharp contrast to the angry, Holocaust-denying diatribes of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani is to be accompanied at the General Assembly by Ciamak Morsadegh, Iran's only Jewish member of Parliament.

Whether or not the two presidents meet, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is to meet his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Thursday in the first face-to-face foreign minister exchange between the two countries since 2007 and the first official meeting on that level since 2000.

Zarif, who got his doctorate in international law and policy from the University of Denver, is to join nuclear talks in New York with the United States and five other world powers -- Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

It was not immediately clear if Kerry and Zarif would break off from the group and meet one-on-one.

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Original Headline: Obama: U.N.'s credibility on the line on Syria chemical weapons

Source: Copyright 2013 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).