When hundreds of the world’s leaders converge on New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, as they are doing right now, taxi drivers call it “Hell Week.” They mean that literally. The traffic is a nightmare. Security is always tight, and this year the shadow of the ongoing siege in Nairobi is a grim reminder of how much havoc can be created by a handful of terrorists.
But for the diplomatic players who come to town it’s a more complicated ordeal as they mix and mingle, wait for the notoriously slow elevators at the Waldorf Towers, where President Barack Obama and many other leaders stay, and in some cases actually work for diplomatic breakthroughs.
On Sunday night, as the dignitaries checked in and started getting up to speed, the talk focused almost entirely on the Middle East and Africa.
1. Obama May Meet With Iran’s New President
The biggest question mark is whether, or perhaps how, President Obama will meet the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. Since his election in June, Rouhani has been on a charm offensive, trying to put to rest the bellicose rhetoric of his Israel-baiting predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He’s granted interviews to several Western journalists, and he’s signaled he wants to reach an agreement with the United States that would help end the crippling economic sanctions imposed on his country.
But Rouhani’s title is deceptive. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is, well, the supreme leader. Rouhani doesn’t have the authority to make a deal that would limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions enough to satisfy Washington, and there is no sign so far that Khamenei is willing to do so. When Rouhani told NBC’s Ann Curry earlier this month that Iran will never build a nuclear bomb, he made headlines. But that has been Iran’s stated policy for years—dictated by Khamenei. Washington, the Europeans, and Israel, which sees a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, never believed such claims before and they are dubious of them now.
So the chances of a formal diplomatic meeting between Obama and Rouhani are virtually nil. But a brief encounter, perhaps almost by chance—perhaps, oh, while waiting for an elevator? Many analysts expect something like that to happen so the administration can signal that it likes the Iranian change of tone.
“I would just say that in general, it's possible,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters last week. “But it has always been possible. The extended hand has been there from the moment the president was sworn into office ... We obviously notice a significant change in language and tone from the new Iranian government when compared to its predecessor. It's rather dramatic. But it's important when we're talking about this incredibly serious matter of a nuclear weapons program that we not just take Iran's words for it, that we back it up and see if it's real.”
2. Syria Shockwaves Continue to Ripple
The not-unrelated question of Syria also loomed large at get-togethers near U.N. headquarters. It’s doubtful that the diplomatic drama of the last month will be topped during Hell Week in New York. But at a small meeting held in the exclusive Core Club a few blocks from the U.N. on Sunday night, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, his country’s former intelligence chief and onetime ambassador to Washington, delivered a blistering rebuke to the Obama administration and other Western powers for their handling of the crisis.
The Saudis are major supporters of the fractious Syrian opposition, while Iran and Russia are major backers of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Prince Turki no longer officially represents his government, but he remains a major player in the royal family. His father was king and his brother, Saud al-Faisal, is the longtime foreign minister.
“The shameful way that the world community accepts the impunity of the butcher of Syria is a blot on the conscience of the world,” said Prince Turki, reading from a prepared text. “The dithering of leadership in the West and the callous, cynical, and cavalier attitude in supporting Bashar by Russia and China are a stigma that they will bear forever. The Iranian leadership’s support for Assad, from the beginning, is a criminal act and they should be tried in the International Criminal Court. The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious, and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad butcher his people.”
Prince Turki called for military action. “Preventing Assad from using his killing machine by any means, including targeted strikes at his air force and command and control centers, is the only way that a politically negotiated end to the carnage in Syria can be achieved,” said Prince Turki. “You delay now, and you will have to do more when the carnage spreads to Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq.”
3. A Sudanese Villain May Show Up
Assad is not expected to make the trip to New York this year, but another internationally recognized villain—and one formally charged with crimes against humanity—just might. Sudanese President Omar Bashir, accused of carrying out a genocidal campaign against the people of Darfur, has applied for a visa to attend the General Assembly. The International Criminal Court would like to put him on trial. Normally, as part of its obligations as the site of U.N. headquarters, the United States would have to grant the visa. But the State Department is noncommittal, and sounds almost confused.
“There are a variety of considerations in play with respect to President Bashir’s visa,” spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters last week, “including the outstanding warrant for his arrest.”
With such issues greeting him on his arrival in New York tomorrow, President Obama may start calling this Hell Week, too.