Thaw provoking? Iran ‘ready for engagement’ at UN Assembly as US, Russia talk Syria

Syria and Iran will be the key items on the agenda at the 68th General Assembly that opens in New York on Tuesday. The stakes are high, with world leaders from nearly 200 member states set to tackle challenges and reach agreements over disputed issues.

Among the most anticipated speeches at the General Assembly is the address of Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, who is scheduled to deliver his speech a few hours after Barack Obama's welcoming address on September 24.

Rouhani, who will be accompanied on his visit by Iran's only Jewish MP, tweeted that he is "ready for constructive engagement” with the world "to show real image of great Iranian nation."

Experts say, however, that the chances that the first face-to-face encounter between the leaders of the two countries since the 1970s would take place are slim. As things stand now, even a handshake would be regarded a sign of a thaw in relations.

Israel has voiced concern over a potential meeting of the US and Iranian presidents, saying Tehran's conciliatory advances to world leaders in reality conceal an advancement of its disputed nuclear program. Iran denies seeking atomic weapons. Israel claims Iran has centrifuges for quickly turning low-enriched uranium into bomb fuel, and says an Iranian bomb could be six months from production.

Asked if there would be a historic Obama-Rouhani handshake, the cabinet minister representing Israel at the UN forum in New York replied "I hope not. I don't know. But really the important thing is not just words and appearances. The important thing is the actions. The important thing is the resolutions," Yuval Steinitz told Israel's Army Radio. 

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani.(Reuters / Majid Hagdost)

Meanwhile, a recent poll commissioned by the international civic organization Avaaz showed that 74 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Iranians actually support direct talks between the two states.
 
“There are always what I guess you would call professional Iran haters around, or the people who find it useful to beat the war drum. But you have to ask yourself, what all of this enmity for the last 34 years has accomplished. If you beat your chest for 34 years what’s the result going to be? A very sore chest,”
a veteran US diplomat held captive by revolutionaries in the Iranian hostage crisis between 1979 and 1981, John Limbert, told RT.

Limbert believes that any kind of interaction between the US and Iran will be a beneficial step for all involved.

“We would have been talking to each other years ago, maybe not as friends, but at least as two states with common things to talk about. It does happen. It may just be a handshake, brief encounter, but even that at the symbolic level would represent a huge change. It’s obvious that the US and Iran do have things to talk about over Syria,”
he added.

Russia, US divided over Syria

In fact, the UN General Assembly is expected to get under way amid a diplomatic battle over Syria between Russia and the US, as RT's Anissa Naouai reports from United Nations Headquarters.

“John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov are set to meet on the sidelines of the Assembly, but just as it seems diplomacy might prevail, the Russian Foreign Minister says that the US is trying to pressure Moscow into approving a UN resolution allowing for military intervention. He adds that the US claims in exchange they would be willing to continue working on Syria’s entry into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” she said.

President Barack Obama is to kick off the Tuesday morning session with a speech on the need for the international community to stand up to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad, the White House said.

Washington and Moscow are divided over how to tackle the Syrian crisis. The civil war, which has already raged for over two years, has left over 100,000 people dead. A chemical attack near Damascus on August 21, which killed some 1,426 people, including women and children, prompted the US to threaten military action. The experts were sent to investigate several cases of alleged use of chemical weapons, but their work was disrupted by the August 21 attack. Russia says UN chemical weapons inspectors are to return to Syria on Wednesday to continue their mission.

“US officials compromised on chemical weapons, but they continue talking about how ‘the Syrian regime’, as they call it, is guilty of the use of chemical weapons without providing comprehensive proof. They constantly voice reservations that the plan to punish Damascus up to a military intervention is still in power,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told the Duma on Tuesday. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gesture, following meetings regarding Syria, at a news conference in Geneva September 14, 2013.(Reuters / Larry Downing)

On September 14, Lavrov together finally coordinated a plan to secure Syrian chemical weapons by mid-2014 with the US State Secretary John Kerry, following a suggestion from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Moscow managed to convince Washington of the need to work out an agreement on a plan to contain and destroy Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles. Moscow argues that any discrepancies and disputes should only be resolved through consultation with the UN Security Council, while the United States suggests that any suspected violations are dealt with by military force.

Latin American leaders outraged by Obama

Update: Brazil's Rousseff to UN: US surveillance an 'affront'

Another sensitive issue likely to be brought up at the General Assembly is the NSA leak fallout, which implicated the US in wide-range surveillance of its own citizens, but also on foreign governments and institutions.

Particularly, US relations with Latin America have recently soured, and the speeches of some leaders at the General Assembly might reflect recent rifts.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is schedule to open the Tuesday session, has postponed her state visit to Washington in response to the US spying on her communications with top aides.

Rousseff, as well as former President Lula da Silva, said that Obama should "personally apologize to the world."

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden and reported by the US journalist Glenn Greenwald caused a furor in Brazil. Earlier this month, TV Globo revealed in a report that the NSA monitored the content of phone calls, emails, and mobile phone messages belonging to President Rousseff and undefined "key advisers" of the Brazilian government.

The NSA also spied on Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and nine members of his office. A document dated June 2012 showed that the Mexican President's emails were read through one month before he was elected. In his communications, the then-presidential candidate indicated who he would like to appoint to several government posts.

The Brazilian government denounced the NSA surveillance as “impermissible and unacceptable” and a violation of Brazilian sovereignty.

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff.(AFP Photo / Sergei Karpukhin)

Among those unhappy with the US foreign policies is Venezuela which on September 20 sent a letter to the UN chief asking him to take measures against the United States over the denial of visas for some members of its delegation who are scheduled to attend the UN General Assembly. Venezuela also requested that the UN “demand that the government of the US abide by its international obligations” as host of the Assembly. President Maduro said members of his country’s delegation “are not traveling to New York as tourists on vacation…we are going to a UN function.”

Tension between the countries spiked when Venezuela’s foreign minister told media outlets that the US denied a plane carrying Maduro entrance into its airspace. The aircraft was en route to China. Washington later granted the approval, stating that Venezuela’s request had not been properly submitted. Elias Jaua had denounced the move as “an act of aggression.”

Citing the incident, Bolivian President Evo Morales said he will file a lawsuit against the US government for crimes against humanity. He lashed out at the US after the Venezuelan presidential jet was blocked from entering US airspace.

“I would like to announce that we are preparing a lawsuit against Barack Obama to condemn him for crimes against humanity,” said President Morales at a press conference in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. He branded the US president as a “criminal” who violates international law.

In early July the plane carrying Bolivian President from Moscow to La Paz was grounded for 13 hours in Austria after it was banned from European airspace because of suspicion it carried fugitive Edward Snowden. Bolivia accused the US of trying to "kidnap" Morales, after his plane was denied permission to fly over Portugal and France.