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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Donald Trump tackles Middle East at UN General Assembly, but few breakthroughs expected

UN General Assembly 2018: Trump set to emphasise sovereignty and building relations that share US values

President Donald Trump takes the stage during a campaign rally in Springfield. Reuters
President Donald Trump takes the stage during a campaign rally in Springfield. Reuters

US President Donald Trump's participation at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly session in New York is likely to prove anything but accommodating to international partners.

With US midterm elections looming and the ongoing economic, cyber and political skirmishes with Russia, China and Iran, Mr Trump is expected to use the UN meeting as a platform to amplify his views, as he has done before.

The US ambassador to the UN compared the session's hustle and bustle, which began on Thursday, to speed dating.

"All of you know it’s speed dating. But what we will try to do is have all hands on deck. There’s a lot of issues to cover,” Nikki Haley said.

President Trump’s schedule

Ms Haley told reporters on Thursday that President Trump is set to arrive in his hometown of New York on Monday, where he will use the UNGA session to launch the Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem summit, in a bid to reduce illicit drugs and expand treatment for addicts. He will also attend a reception for heads of states on that same day.

On Tuesday Mr Trump will deliver his second speech to the General Assembly, where Ms Haley said the president will be “talking about foreign policy successes the United States has had over the past year and where we’re going to go from here.” Emphasising sovereignty and building relations that share US values will be some of the speech highlights, explained the US ambassador.

Also on Tuesday, Mr Trump will attend a lunch hosted by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and a reception by Ms Haley, as the current President of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

On Wednesday the US president will chair a United Nations Security Council Briefing on nuclear non-proliferation, which will focus on Iran. But Ms Haley and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said it will also discuss North Korea, chemical weapons in Syria and counter proliferation cooperation.

While at the UN, Mr Trump has six scheduled bilateral meetings:

1 - President Moon Jae-in of South Korea

2 - President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi of Egypt

3 - President Emmanuel Macron of France

4 - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel

5 - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan

6 - Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom

Absent from the current list of Middle Eastern attendees are King Abdullah II of Jordan, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Asked if Mr Trump would meet his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, Ms Haley said:

“Certainly if Rouhani requested a meeting it would be for the president to decide if he wants to do that.” The US President is expected to depart the UN on Thursday.

Iran, North Korea and the peace process

When it comes to policy breakthroughs, experts who spoke to The National were doubtful that much would be accomplished at UNGA73.

The platform, they said, is more theatrical than policy-driven.

UNGA has witnessed some of the most memorable instances of international relations in history.

In 1960 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on a desk, while Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro delivered a four hour speech. In 2010 Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad prompted walk-outs when he proclaimed the US government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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Read more on the UNGA:

UNGA to vote on final pact to manage refugee crisis

UN postcard: reform remains critical for organisation to play effective peace-making role

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Other times, the spectacles have taken place outside the General Assembly room. In 2009, late Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi threw a charade in order to erect his tent on a New Jersey property belonging to none other than Mr Trump.

Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the UN University Center for Policy Research, expects Mr Trump “to be as abrasive at the UN as he was last year, or even more so”.

“He has been increasingly disruptive in multilateral forums this year, blowing up the G7 and Nato summits. With the mid-terms coming up, he can stir up his base by throwing a few punches at the UN,” Mr Gowan told The National.

The expert said Iran and North Korea will likely dominate the agenda. It remains unclear how the US president will behave vis-a-vis North Korea, but many anticipate a softer language as Mr Pompeo readies for another trip to DPRK. In 2017 Mr Trump called Kim Jong Un "rocket man" and “publicly threatened him with destruction, but this year Trump may be more emollient, highlighting his personal bond with Kim,” Mr Gowan said.

How will other leaders react to Mr Trump? Mr Gowan predicted self-control. “Nobody wants to wade into a public bust-up with the US president, even if they disagree with him.”

In regards to the Middle East particularly, said Johnathan Schanzer, the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “the priorities appear to be Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict”.

For the Trump administration “the way forward on Iran is clear: sanctions and political isolation” but not so much with the Israelis and the Palestinians, Mr Schanzer explained.

Speculation points towards the potential unveiling of a US peace plan by Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner at the UNGA.

Mr Schanzer said that releasing “aspects of the plan might help in corralling other nations, but then again, depending on the specifics, it might hurt progress”.

With Mr Trump meeting Benjamin Netanyahu and not Mahmoud Abbas, and as tension with the Palestinians and the administration reaches an all-time high after cutting aid and closing the Palestinian mission, Washington may choose again to delay the announcement.

Ms Haley's addressing of the Security Council on Thursday prioritised Iran over the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

“The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is serious and worthy of this Council’s attention. But if there is one country that is the source of conflict and instability in the Middle East – one country that merits a quarterly debate in the Security Council – that country is not Israel. It’s Iran,” she said.

On Iran, Mr Schanzer acknowledged continued tensions with the EU over US withdrawal from the deal, but said: “it has become increasingly clear that EU companies are exiting Iran in droves. There won’t be much to talk about if this trend continues”.

In its meetings with GCC dignitaries at the UNGA, the Trump administration is expected to continue to push to bring the price of oil down ahead of sanctions set to target the oil sector in Iran on November 4.

Supporting UN efforts in Syria , Yemen and Libya will be reiterated by US diplomats but no breakthroughs are on the horizon.

Amidst all the key issues, the elephant in the room for the US may be the China's rising influence.

“Xi Jinping is not coming to New York, but China's influence at the UN is growing rapidly as the US pulls back,” argued Mr Gowan, of the UN University Center for Policy Research.

“Chinese diplomats are increasingly shaping debates about development and human rights…they want to see the UN endorse initiatives like the One Belt, One Road programme and a lot of states are happy to oblige” he said.