Opinion | Opinion | World

At 2014 U.N. General Assembly, ISIS likely to dominate discourse

Iranian President Hassab Rouhani, left, meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 26, 2013. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Iranian President Hassab Rouhani, left, meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 26, 2013. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The circus is coming to town.

No, there won’t be marching elephants, lion tamers or motorcycles jumping through rings of fire. But there may be wolves in sheep’s clothing, tightrope walking and motorcades blocking traffic.

We’re talking, of course, about the United Nations General Assembly, held every September at U.N. headquarters in midtown Manhattan.

It’s an opportunity for presidents and prime ministers to fly into the Big Apple, get their 15 minutes in front of a global audience, and perhaps engage in the kind of theatrics that will have pundits’ jaws flapping and constituents cheering back home.

Recent years have been filled with memorable moments: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s declaration in 2006 that the podium still stunk of sulfur because President George W. Bush, “the devil,” had stood there the day before. In 2009, Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi delivered a rambling 90-minute diatribe that included conspiracy theories about both the Kennedy assassination and swine flu. And, of course, there were the walkouts whenever Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then president of Iran, started babbling about the Holocaust or America’s alleged role in perpetrating the 9/11 attacks.

Those characters are all gone now — Chavez and Gadhafi are dead, and Ahmadinejad is a private citizen — but that doesn’t mean there won’t be grandstanding in Turtle Bay.

Two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made headlines and invited some ridicule when he brandished a cartoon image of a ticking bomb and colored it in with a red marker to underscore the imminent danger of Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu will be back again this year. Will he have more graphics in tow? In an email to JTA, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to offer details about Netanyahu’s plans.

But we can safely surmise a few things:

United States
President Obama is slated to speak on Sept. 24, just hours before the start of Rosh Hashanah. In all likelihood, his message will forecast some bitterness for the year ahead.

With the administration expanding its fight against ISIS, the Islamic radical group in Iraq and Syria, expect Obama to use his address to build support for the anti-ISIS coalition. He’ll probably argue that the United States is only reluctantly ratcheting up its military efforts against ISIS, try to dispel the notion that the United States has an axe to grind against Muslims and highlight the threat that ISIS poses worldwide.

“The United States will hold the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in September, and we will use that opportunity to continue to build a broad coalition and highlight the danger posed by foreign terrorist fighters, including those who have joined ISIS,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in an Op-Ed column in The New York Times on Aug. 29. “During the General Assembly session, President Obama will lead a summit meeting of the Security Council to put forward a plan to deal with this collective threat.”

With Israel uneasy after this summer’s war, not least because it believes the world does not have its back in its conflict with violent Islamists like Hamas, expect Netanyahu to attempt to link ISIS to the threats facing Israel.
“Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas,” Netanyahu said over the summer. “They’re the enemies of peace. They’re the enemies of Israel. They’re the enemies of all civilized countries.”

The prime minister also is likely to use the U.N. stage to try to revive international concern about Iran’s nuclear program, which hasn’t gotten much notice lately.

The four-month extension of talks between Iran and the world’s leading powers expires in November, and Tehran hasn’t taken all the interim steps it promised in exchange for the temporary easing of some sanctions.

Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had failed to explain research it had conducted on detonators that could be used for a nuclear weapon and calculations it made on the explosive yield of a nuclear weapon. Iran also has barred U.N. visits to a military site suspected of housing nuclear component testing and is working on completing even more powerful centrifuges to make nuclear fuel.

Netanyahu won’t ignore the Palestinian issue, but because he believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets outsized attention when people talk about the problems of the Middle East, expect Netanyahu to focus most of his talk elsewhere.

And don’t be surprised if the prime minister engages in a little Israel boosterism, as he often does, noting, for example, the Jewish state’s remarkable economic, technological or scientific contributions to mankind. He’ll be speaking Sept. 29 or 30.

It’s still unclear whether or not this U.S. visit will include a Netanyahu-Obama meeting. The two have been on the outs lately over Israel’s treatment of Kerry and the White House’s halting of a missile delivery to Israel during the war.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a relative moderate compared to his predecessor, so don’t expect Ahmadinejad’s fireworks or conspiracy theories.When Rouhani speaks on Sept. 24, he’s likely to promote the notion that Iran is a peace-seeking nation and argue that the country has been singled out unfairly for special opprobrium. He may not come out swinging against the United States, but he’ll likely knock Washington and other Western powers for double standards when it comes to the use of violence and their treatment of Iran.

“Those who harp on the so-called threat of Iran are either a threat against international peace and security themselves or promote such a threat,” Rouhani said at last year’s General Assembly. “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or to the region. In fact, in ideals as well as in actual practice, my country has been a harbinger of just peace and comprehensive security.”

More interesting will be what Rouhani has to say about ISIS. On the one hand, the United States and Iran share a common enemy in ISIS, a militant Sunni group that has massacred Shiites (Iran is a Shiite regime.) On the other hand, the Iranian ayatollah has accused the United States of being behind ISIS’s creation. It remains to be seen how Rouhani will walk this tightrope.

It’s also not clear whether or not Rouhani, who will be speaking on Rosh Hashanah eve, will use the opportunity to follow up on the holiday greeting he tweeted Jews last year.

The Palestinian Authority
At the time of last year’s General Assembly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had just entered into a new round of U.S.-backed peace negotiations with Israel, and he used his speech to make the case for the importance of international pressure to achieve Palestinian statehood.

Fast forward a year: Israel just concluded a bloody war in Gaza that left 2,200 Palestinians dead, no peace talks are on the horizon and Abbas is struggling with his rivals (and unity government partners) in Hamas. One thing hasn’t changed: There’s still no Palestinian state.

Expect Abbas to use his U.N. speech to argue for the urgency of Palestinian statehood, criticize Israel for its settlement construction and distinguish his movement from that of violent Islamists (including, perhaps, Hamas).
PLO officials released a preview of what Abbas plans to say in another speech during his U.S. visit, at New York’s Cooper Union. The U.N. speech probably will hit similar themes: “Why nonviolent protest is the best method by which Palestinians should seek their rights; his view on how peace and interreligious coexistence can flourish in Israel and Palestine with the help of the next generation; why terrorism as practiced by al-Qaeda on 9/11 and ISIS is inconsistent with Islam.”