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Iran and Syria on stage at UN: Real drama to replace shock theater

Two of the world's most explosive issues, Syria and Iran's nuclear program, could produce a dramatic diplomatic revival at the UN General Assembly when they take center stage next week.

By Staff writer / September 21, 2013

President Barack Obama, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. After years of estrangement, the United States and Russia are joined as partners in a bold plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons. More surprising yet, American and Iranian leaders – after an exchange of courteous letters – may meet in New York for the first time since the Islamic revolution swept Iran nearly 35 years ago.

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Washington

Forget Broadway. The most riveting drama on a New York stage next week will be at the United Nations, as world leaders including President Obama and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, address global audiences and test the diplomatic openings for addressing two of the world’s most explosive issues: Syria and Iran’s nuclear program.

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In recent years the annual gathering of world leaders in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly had become more of a show than a diplomatic forum – thanks in large part to Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose version of shock theater drew boldface headlines and wide disdain but facilitated few diplomatic overtures.

But next week things should be different. Mr. Rouhani, whose six-day visit to New York begins Sunday, will take his international charm offensive to the UN dais, where he is expected to argue that Iran is ready to reach a fair accord on its nuclear program that reassures the world about Iran’s intentions.

Mr. Obama, who only two weeks ago was threatening to unleash American military might against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war, is expected to hail a barely week-old US-Russia plan to rid Syria (and the world) of its substantial chemical weapons stockpile.

And Obama, who came into office in 2009 extending a diplomatic hand to Tehran, also is likely to take note of the new tone from Iran’s leadership and to hold out hope for a diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear challenge, perhaps even for a new era of cooperation between the US and Iran.

Obama will underscore in his speech that the US remains open to and prefers “peaceful resolution” of the Iranian nuclear standoff, says Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. But the president will also reiterate that it won’t be Iran’s rhetoric, but the steps it takes to prove the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, that the US and the international community want to see.

“We’ve always made clear we’re going to make decisions based on the actions of the Iranian government,” Mr. Rhodes says, “not on their words.”

Also next week, though on a side stage, the UN Security Council will try to deliver a stalled resolution needed to back up the Syrian chemical weapons plan. Western powers want the resolution to have the teeth to prevent Mr. Assad from dallying or backtracking on a commitment he has made to give up all of Syria’s chemical weapons. Russia has so far balked at endowing the resolution with any recourse to the use of force, fearing the US, France, and others might take that as a green light to launch military strikes against Assad.

The Security Council won’t be the only venue for Syria action. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to push forward on the convening of a Syria peace conference. Mr. Ban has suggested that a successful meeting could even result in the setting of a conference date for sometime in October.

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