- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2013

Syria’s chemical weapons program, how to deal with a new Iranian regime and tense Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are just some of the issues that will confront President Obama as he travels to New York this week for a highly anticipated address to the United Nations General Assembly.

But a key question, analysts say, is whether the president uses his speech Tuesday as a vehicle to lay out his vision for America’s role in the Middle East and the broader world, or whether he instead focuses on the specific challenges now facing the U.S. and its allies.

“Presidents do not always use this speech for some grand purpose. Sometimes it is for a very specific purpose. It doesn’t have to be a speech that ends all debates or satisfies all audiences,” said Michael O’Hanlon, director of research for the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy program. “In some sense, you can get in trouble if you try to make too much news. In this case, maybe Obama needs to make sure he doesn’t make any mistakes and doesn’t make any rifts in broader diplomatic efforts.”

The Syrian question

The address surely will focus heavily on the effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile, a complex undertaking that has, once again, shown a spotlight on the often uneasy U.S.-Russia relationship. The two nations are working together to secure and ultimately destroy Syrian President Bashar Assad’s toxic arsenal, but Russia’s continued support of the embattled leader complicates efforts to secure a consensus on how to proceed on the U.N. Security Council.

“We can get ourselves into a real pretzel here with Russia unnecessarily by trying to foresee too much exactly what we would do if Assad does not comply,” Mr. O’Hanlon said, arguing that Mr. Obama must seek to work with Russia as much as possible, rather than spend too much time discussing the potential for U.S. military action in Syria.

While Syria remains at the top of the international agenda, the most intriguing dynamic at this week’s gathering is how Mr. Obama interacts, if at all, with new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. Mr. Rouhani also will address the U.N. on Tuesday, just hours after Mr. Obama.

There are no meetings scheduled between the two men, according to the White House, but repairing relations with Iran — and ensuring it does not pursue a nuclear weapons program — will be a top goal this week.

“A nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable to the United States. [Mr. Obama] has repeatedly made clear that all options are on the table to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But again, we want to make sure that we are testing every opportunity to resolve this issue diplomatically,” said Ben Rhodes, the administration’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, during a conference call with reporters late last week.

Outreach from Iran?

Since recently taking control of Iran, Mr. Rouhani has, on the surface, appeared to be willing to thaw relations with the U.S. He also has flatly stated that his nation is not interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, even as American intelligence estimates show Iran’s nuclear program is continuing and that it is on course to be capable of building bombs soon.

“We’re going to have an opportunity to discuss this at the U.N. General Assembly, in the president’s speech, in his meetings,” Mr. Rhodes continued. The U.S. approach “is designed to incentivize the Iranian government to make a different decision and to pursue actions that build the confidence of the international community that their program is peaceful. If they do that, they can have a different relationship with the United States and the international community. If they don’t, they’ll continue to face increasing pressure.”

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers have been encouraged by what they’ve seen and heard from Mr. Rouhani.

“There are some good signals and we need to celebrate the good signals and we need to make our decisions in consultation with Israel,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

Working with Netanyahu

How to handle Iran will be a key topic when Mr. Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week.

In announcing the visit, the White House made clear it intends to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — recently revived after being dormant for three years — while Mr. Netanyahu wants Iran at the top of the agenda.

“I intend to focus on the question of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, an actual halt to the nuclear program,” Mr. Netanyahu said recently. “And until that is achieved, the pressure on Iran shall be intensified and not eased.”

Before next week’s sit-down with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Obama this week will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas while in New York.

The White House called the meeting “an important opportunity” for the president to “reinforce the support of the United States for the progress that is underway for Middle East peace.”

In addition to the Abbas meeting, Mr. Obama also will meet with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.

While in New York, Mr. Obama also will attend an event at the Clinton Global Initiative and will join former President Bill Clinton to discuss health care reform.

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