Having failed to produce a deal after six months of bargaining in Vienna, the Iran nuclear talks now appear headed for a venue even less auspicious for the U.S. and its allies: the United Nations General Assembly, whose next session opens this September in New York. According to a senior U.S. administration official, speaking at a background press briefing as the latest round of nuclear talks wrapped up, July 18, in Vienna: “There is no question that the U.N. General Assembly will become a focal point or a fulcrum for these negotiations.”
There has been no explanation so far of the format in which the Iran nuclear talks might mesh with the General Assembly. But with the talks now extended by four months, through November 24, the same U.S. official added that the opening of the General Assembly will provide a handy nexus “because we have a lot of players there and an easy way to really get some business done.”
Easy for whom? The record suggests that Iran is both adept and aggressive in exploiting the U.N., where, for a country under sanctions, it enjoys remarkable room to maneuver. At last September’s General Assembly opening, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, became the star of the show, courted by the Obama administration while he denounced the U.S. for “violence and extreme actions.”
The U.N., for its part, has been much better at accommodating Iran than at containing it. Iran’s misogynistic, repressive, terror-sponsoring regime holds a slew of elected U.N. posts, including seats on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and the governing boards of UNICEF and the U.N.’s flagship agency, the U.N. Development Program.
Meanwhile, the entire U.N. Security Council, replete with all the players and amenities of the U.N.’s New York headquarters, has failed to stop Iran’s rogue nuclear program. Four rounds of binding Security Council sanctions resolutions, passed in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010, have not done the job. There has not been another sanctions resolution on Iran since 2010.
Failure at the U.N. is why six world powers ended up cutting an interim nuclear deal directly with Iran last November in Geneva, in which all parties agreed to seek a “long-term comprehensive solution.” That led to the past half-year of haggling directly with Iran in Vienna. This negotiating group, led by the European Union and known as the P5+1, includes all five permanent members of the Security Council (the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, and China), plus Germany.
In Vienna, the six members of the P5+1 succeeded chiefly in undercutting the U.N. sanctions that five of them had previously approved at the U.N. Security Council. While the U.N. sanctions call for Iran to constrain its ballistic-missile development and halt all uranium enrichment, the P5+1 negotiators, to judge by the public statements of U.S. officials and their cohorts, have made no progress on missile constraints, and have conceded to Iran the “right” to enrich. One of the sticking points now appears to be just how many thousands of centrifuges Iran will officially operate. So much for the record of the U.N. Security Council, where at least the U.S. wields veto power.
The General Assembly is even worse. Especially in matters involving the Middle East, the Assembly operates as an anti-American free-for-all. While U.S. taxpayers pick up at least 22 percent of the multibillion-dollar tab, U.N. membership confers diplomatic immunities and equal voting privileges on all the U.N.’s 193 member states, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, under sanctions or not. Over the years, Iran’s regime has exploited this setup for everything from outsized diplomatic leverage to a convenient cover for money-laundering in Manhattan.
Currently, Iran holds the three-year rotating chair of one of the largest voting blocs in the General Assembly, the Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM. The NAM includes well over half the members of the General Assembly: 119 countries, plus the Palestinian Authority, on which the General Assembly in 2012, over U.S. protests, conferred the status of non-member Observer State.
Not that all members of the Non-Aligned Movement always vote in concert with Iran. But Iran’s tenure from 2012 to 2015 as head of the NAM allows Iran’s diplomats to wear two hats, representing Tehran and also speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement. The tenor of this scene can be discerned from State Department reports on voting records at the U.N.: On a broad range of resolutions, the coincidence of General Assembly members’ voting last fall with the U.S. position was less than half: 48.4 percent. For one of Iran’s favorite U.N. rallying causes, anti-Israel resolutions, the coincidence of member states voting no, alongside the U.S., was 3.6 percent.
For last year’s General Assembly opening, Iran helped orchestrate a NAM-initiated farce billed as the first High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament. That meeting showcased Iran’s President Rouhani as one of the top speakers, flanked by U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon, with Rouhani lauding Iran as a beacon of peace. That event has spawned U.N. plans to mark this September 26, during the General Assembly debate, as “International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.”
If that sounds promising, please don’t mistake the U.N. labels for any genuine intention on Iran’s part to comply with U.N. sanctions on its nuclear program, or to cut a deal with the P5+1 that would truly thwart Tehran’s path to the bomb. At the U.N., the targets of such Iran-fostered initiatives are the U.S. and Israel.
As for Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Javad Zarif, he should feel right at home in New York, where from 2002 to 2007 he served as Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. — and got some serious practice snookering U.S. authorities. According to court documents filed in the Southern District of New York, Zarif was one of a series of Iranian U.N. ambassadors who, under direct orders from Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ali Khamenei, secretly oversaw the money-laundering operations of a Manhattan-based tax-exempt outfit called the Alavi Foundation. Officially dedicated to spreading Persian culture and Islamic teachings, the Alavi Foundation collected and dispersed millions every year in rental income from a 36-story office tower on Fifth Avenue, built in the 1970s with backing by the Shah of Iran.
Last September, leading to what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara described as “the largest-ever terrorism-related forfeiture,” a U.S. federal judge ruled that the office building was secretly owned and controlled by the government of Iran, and found that the Alavi Foundation had committed money-laundering offenses and violated U.S. sanctions on Iran. Part of Zarif’s contribution during his tenure as U.N. ambassador, according to court documents, was to secretly order the Alavi Foundation in 2004 to pay out $4 million to settle a lawsuit that threatened to expose in open court Alavi’s connection to the government of Iran.
With Zarif now promoted by Rouhani to foreign minister, Iran’s audacity at the U.N. continues. This spring, Iran tried to send to New York as its U.N. ambassador a man named Hamid Aboutalebi, who in 1979 was among the hostage-takers who stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 U.S. diplomats for 444 days. When the U.S. denied Aboutalebi a visa, Iran’s government cast itself as the aggrieved party, protesting to the U.N. that the refusal was “in contravention of the principles of international law and the United Nations charter.”
That’s just a sample of the manipulation, exploitation, and theatrics that await Western nuclear negotiators if the General Assembly opening in New York becomes a fulcrum of the Iran nuclear talks. On the evidence, haggling with Iran in the environs of the U.N. offices in Vienna has proved quite problematic enough. Has it occurred to the lead U.S. negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, that the U.N. General Assembly opening is the most treacherous turf this side of Tehran? Or does the Obama administration simply not care?
— Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.