24 Sep 2013

The UN's comeback moment: will hope and history chime?

Time was when the UN general assembly was an essential event for any journalist – especially during the closure of the cold war. But since the political, diplomatic, and military failures that have accompanied the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – and the neutering of most UN efforts in resolving either, or much else, including Syria – the event every September/October has become bogged down and all but impossible to report with any interest. Indeed this year David Cameron isn’t even coming – I write this from New York today.

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But suddenly this place is seized with life and excitement again as one of the world’s most intractable “stand-offs” holds forth the tender promise of resolution – a resolution with vast regional and global implications.

Should America’s President Obama and Iran’s President Rouhani just happen to grasp even a handshake and a few words in the margins of this year’s meeting of the general assembly,  it could prove the most important handshake since the ending of the cold war.

The Middle East is in turmoil. America and her allies are in practical terms stalemated, effectively defeated in their military adventures in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The west is apparently neutered in Syria, yet isolated Iran is a more prominent pivot than ever. For 34 years the United States has refused to treat with the government that flowed from the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Britain has followed in her wake. Once the western power with some of the greatest diplomatic and economic access to the country, now shorn of any involvement at all, whilst French and German influence have bloomed. Iran remains the key diplomatically un-engaged regional power in Syria itself, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, and beyond.

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Today all that could change – Obama and Rouhani both speak here at the UN. There are half a dozen “moments” when the leaders can meet in the margins of UN events and meetings. There have been overtures of hopeful signs of “opening”. Rouhani has inaugurated participation in new nuclear talks, released so far two waves of political prisoners, and played a role in responding to the 21 August chemical attack in Syria with horror that they had been used. I was in Iran during the Iran/Iraq war, in which Iran suffered grievously from Saddam Hussein’s criminal use of such weapons (a use the west did nothing about). I stood in Halabja in the aftermath of the attack that killed 5,000 people.

Rouhani’s delegation includes my friend, the Jewish MP from Tehran, Cliamak Morsadegh. He runs the Jewish hospital there, 98 per cent of his patients are Muslim. Morsadegh represents 35,000 Jews in Iran – the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. His presence may well be designed to try to reassure Israel of Iran’s intent.

The enmity between America and Iran has bread a dangerous inevitability that Iran has embraced America’s enemies in the region precisely because, in part, they are “my enemy’s enemy”.

William Hague, after seeing his Iranian opposite number Mr Zarif here for the first time yesterday (pictured above), talked of needing more concrete steps from Iran. Today we could perhaps smell some of the concrete setting.

Once in a while a journalist senses he or she is present at a great symbolic moment in history. For humankind’s good we must hope that this day, this week, is one such moment and that we are not wrong.

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