President Barack Obama, in his address to the 70th United Nations General Assembly on Monday, warned world leaders about the danger of Russian aggression, but said nothing about Israel — a vacuum that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promptly filled.
“If not for the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and its unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the Zionist regime against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes,” Rouhani said.
Iran remains listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department. The Islamic Republic supports Hezbollah, Houthi rebels in Yemen and embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Earlier in his speech, after praising the negotiations that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Rouhani criticized Israel, saying, “We expect [the United Nations] to play a positive role in the creation of a nuclear weapons-free Middle East and not to allow the Zionist regime to remain the only impediment in the way of realizing this important initiative.”
The Iranian president, elected two years ago, had harsh words for Saudi Arabia as well. He criticized Saudi officials for the deaths of hundreds at the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca known as hajj. He said the pilgrims fell “victim to the incompetence and mismanagement of those in charge.”
Obama, who was several speakers ahead of Rouhani, praised the nuclear agreement, saying, “After I took office, I made clear that one of the principal achievements of this body — the nuclear nonproliferation regime — was endangered by Iran’s violation of the [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. On that basis, the Security Council tightened sanctions on the Iranian government, and many nations joined us to enforce them. Together, we showed that laws and agreements mean something.”
The result, Obama said, is a deal that if “fully implemented, the prohibition on nuclear weapons is strengthened, a potential war is averted, our world is safer.”
Pope Francis, who spoke before the United Nations during his week-long trip to the United States, also praised the deal.
But the thrust of Obama’s speech focused on Russian aggression in Ukraine, and it touched on China’s push into the South China Sea and thawing relations with Cuba.
During the busy opening days of the General Assembly, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Their meeting last Saturday was the first time the two had met since nuclear negotiations concluded in July in Vienna. He wouldn’t venture into specifics of what the two planned to discuss, but Kerry said achieving regional peace, particularly in Syria and Yemen, was a priority, as was discussing the detainment of American citizens.
Zarif agreed but emphasized that the focus of the meeting was on the full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal.
“That is the project that we started together, and we hope that by its full implementation — its good-faith implementation — we can vent some of the mistrust that has existed over the past many decades,” said Zarif.
But Republican critics of the deal do not believe it will be executed in good faith. Last Friday, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) stated that the International Atomic Energy Agency director lied to Congress regarding the side deals between the agency and Iran that allows Iran to submit self-collected samples from the Parchin military complex.
In a letter to Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA, the two Republican congressmen wrote: “An approach that excludes IAEA inspectors from physically accessing and inspecting sites sets a dangerous precedent for future inspections, whether related to settling outstanding [possible military dimensions] issues or verification issues that arise after Implementation Day of the JCPOA, and undermines the credibility of the IAEA.”
Amano, in a previous statement, affirmed that the Iranians did swipe samples from the Parchin site but that the IAEA used “an established verification process” that included monitoring the sampling process. The two separate arrangements between the IAEA and Iran are not subject to review by the P5+1 nations involved with negotiating the nuclear agreement.
Rouhani, on a publicity blitz prior to his speech before the United Nations, said in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Sunday that Iran would consider a prisoner swap for the four Americans thought to be detained or missing in Iran. Those being held include Jason Rezaian, a dual Iranian-American citizen and Washington Post reporter who has been held on espionage charges for more than a year; Amir Hekmati, a former marine sentenced to death for espionage; and Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American pastor detained since 2012. Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, vanished during a visit to Iran in 2007. His whereabouts are unknown.
Rouhani told Amanpour, “If the Americans take the appropriate actions vis-à-vis Iranian citizens who are being imprisoned here, then the right atmosphere and environment will be created for reciprocal action, perhaps.”