Speaking from the same lectern within hours of each other, President Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traded criticism at the opening session of the UN General Assembly. This year’s agenda for 192 UN member states includes trying to promote Mideast peace, curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, get UN peacekeepers into conflict-wracked Darfur, and promote democracy. We speak with UN specialist Phyllis Bennis. [includes rush transcript]
The sixty-first annual United Nations General Assembly has opened in New York. This year’s agenda for the 192 UN member states includes trying to promote Mideast peace, curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, get UN peacekeepers into conflict-wracked Darfur, and promote democracy. Over a week and a half, each nation is allotted 15 minutes at the General Assembly’s dais to deliver a speech about the issues most important to them. President Bush spoke yesterday morning. In his speech he pressed Iran to return to international talks on its nuclear program and threatened consequences if they do not.
- President Bush, addressing the UN General Assembly.
Bush also applauded the new government in Iraq and promised to defend Afghanistan from a resurgent Taliban. Hours later Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the General Assembly. He defended his country’s nuclear program saying it was for peaceful purposes. He also accused the United States and Britain of using the UN Security Council to advance their own agendas.
- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressing the UN General Assembly.
Outside of the United Nations, thousands of protestors gathered to call for the end to the ongoing war in Iraq and an end to all wars. As President Bush stepped to the podium, a group of 17 activists were arrested for civil disobedience as they called for the ouster of Bush for crimes against humanity. One of those arrested was Ann Wright — she is one of three State Department officials to publicly resign in protest of the Iraq war in 2003.
- Retired Army Col. Ann Wright, speaking before her arrest.
- Phyllis Bennis. Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues. Author of "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power."
AMY GOODMAN: President Bush spoke yesterday morning. In his speech, he pressed Iran to return to international talks on its nuclear program and threatened consequences if they don’t.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The United Nations has passed a clear resolution requiring that the regime in Tehran meet its international obligations. Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran’s pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program. We’re working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis. And as we do, we look to the day when you can live in freedom, and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace.
AMY GOODMAN: President Bush also applauded the new government in Iraq and promised to defend Afghanistan from a resurgent Taliban. Hours later, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the General Assembly. He defended his country’s nuclear program, saying it was for peaceful purposes. He also accused the United States and Britain of using the UN Security Council to advance their own agendas.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] Excellencies, the question needs to be asked, if the governments of the United States or the United Kingdom, who are permanent members of the Security Council, permit aggression, occupation and violation of international law, which of the organs of the UN can take them to account? Can a council in which they are privileged members address their violations? Has this ever happened?
AMY GOODMAN: Outside of the United Nations, thousands of protesters gathered to call for an end to the ongoing war in Iraq and an end to all wars. As President Bush stepped to the podium, a group of 17 activists were arrested for civil disobedience as they called for the ouster of President Bush for crimes against humanity. One of those arrested was Ann Wright. She’s one of three State Department officials to publicly resign in protest of the Iraq war in 2003. Here, she’s speaking at yesterday’s protest.
ANN WRIGHT: Well, we’re here to protest George Bush being at the United Nations again to tell the lies of this administration. And as he did three years ago before the attack on Iraq, we fear that this time he’s telling them the same lies about Iran, and we’re here to protest the lies he’s told for the last three years about Iraq, the torture, the rendition, all of the things that have happened about Iraq, including eavesdropping.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis now joins us on the phone from Washington, D.C., a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She specializes in the Middle East and United Nations. She’s the author of a number of books, including Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy US Power. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thanks, Amy. Good to be with you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about what President Ahmadinejad and President Bush — the major conflict going on, expressed on the world stage at the UN?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, it was very interesting to watch yesterday, Amy. In President Bush’s speech, which interestingly was book-ended by the Brazilian President Lula and South African President Mbeki, who both used their time at the UN podium for very different purposes, President Bush stood out with trying to frame what he is calling a new ideological divide in the world. It’s no longer a world, he’s telling us, between communism and capitalism. It’s no longer even the axis of evil. His new language is the world divided between moderates and extremists. And he talked a lot about democracy, although not in the same language that he has in the past, and called on the world to support the moderates. The problem is, of course, he was also talking about how people must respect elected leaders. And he keeps coming up against the fact that those who are elected in the Middle East, whenever elections are held at all, tend to be not the people that he considers moderates. So there was this very interesting sort of reframing of his so-called global war on terrorism to be framed as a war for moderation against extremism.
What was interesting, I thought, in terms of his references to Iran, he made a fairly generalized threatening, in tone, statement: Iran must abide by the Security Council resolution. But he stopped right there. He did not go on to talk about any particular moves that the U.S. would take. He didn’t threaten greater economic sanctions coming from the Security Council, because it’s becoming clearer and clearer that he is not going to be able to win a serious sanctions motion. French President Jacques Chirac yesterday took the opportunity to distance himself from the Bush administration, essentially saying that the most important thing is to get back to negotiations with Iran and that Chirac was perfectly prepared to go ahead with negotiations, even before any sort of suspension of uranium enrichment on the part of Iran, something very different from the U.S. side.
Ahmadinejad’s presentation was far less about the particulars of the conflict between Iran and the U.S. on the question of nuclear power, but rather on the question of U.S. control and domination of the Security Council and the undemocratic nature of the United Nations, a longstanding challenge at the UN. What this may refer to, I’m afraid, is that the U.S. may be in the process of giving up a focus on the United Nations as the key venue for working out their escalating attacks on Iran, if they feel that they are simply not going to get the support they want, do what they did regarding Iraq, which was to deem the Security Council and the UN as a whole, in general, to be what they called irrelevant and go ahead on a unilateral basis.
That would be reflected in the new stories that have come out in the last couple of days in Time magazine and elsewhere, indicating that there have in fact been orders preparing to deploy U.S. Navy warships towards Iran with the goal being not necessarily a direct military strike, but rather a naval blockade of Iranian oil ports, which, of course, constitute an act of war. In that situation, the danger, of course, is that if there was, for example, imagine, a week or so of a U.S. blockade of Iran’s ports, Iran knows, its government and its people know, that that’s an act of war. Most Americans don’t know that a blockade is considered an act of war. And if Iran responded militarily, which unfortunately would be their right under Article 51 of the UN Charter calling for self-defense rights, the Bush administration would very likely call that an unprovoked attack on peaceful U.S. ships and would respond militarily, claiming to be responding in self-defense. That’s, I think, a very serious danger that we face right now. And seeing Bush at the United Nations choosing not to use that rostrum as a podium for escalating threats, direct threats, against Iran, it makes the danger of a unilateral military move right now all the greater.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, Kofi Annan also giving his last major address to world leaders, after ten years at the United Nations in December, pleaded for Security Council action to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, saying efforts to solve all other Middle East crises would face resistance while the Palestinian question remains unresolved.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: He did say that. And that was a very important move. It was interesting also, Amy, that Brazilian President Lula echoed the words of Kofi Annan. He spoke right after the Secretary-General, and he called directly. He said, quote, "Is it not time to call a UN-sponsored conference in the region with the participation of all countries in the region?" A very important proposal.
I think it was also important that the Secretary-General, beyond his focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need to end occupation, and he spoke of the 40 years of occupation in very direct language, he also was uncharacteristically direct in referring to what was unmistakably, although he didn’t name the U.S., it was unmistakably U.S. hypocrisy regarding issues of torture, extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc., when he said in the quote here from Kofi Annan, "Even the necessary and legitimate struggle around the world against terrorism is used as a pretext to abridge or abrogate fundamental human rights, thereby ceding moral ground to the terrorists and helping them find new recruits." That was quite unusual for this usually very, very cautious Secretary-General. And I think the fact that it was his last chance to address the General Assembly made it possible for him to come out more direct.
President Bush, of course, in his speech, when he spoke about both Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, very narrowly, he actually said at one point, "From Beirut to Baghdad, people are making the choice for freedom." I think extraordinarily terrible choice of words, given that it’s in the aftermath of the war in Beirut, as well as currently in Baghdad, that people are barely surviving the level of violence and whatever else is going on there. This is not the choice that people have made.
Regarding Palestine, Bush spoke of being committed, quote, "to a Palestinian state that has territorial integrity." Now, that’s a very dangerous — that’s a very dangerous frame. He went on to say, "and that would live peacefully with the Jewish state of Israel." All of this, coded language for saying that he will not require Israel to give up the huge swaths of territory in the West Bank that it is planning to annex, something that Bush had agreed to back in April of 2004 with then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But he is also apparently accepting Sharon’s concept of what Sharon called "transportation contiguity" for a state, meaning the state doesn’t actually have to be contiguous if you can drive from one part to another, even if you have to go underground in a tunnel, over the ground in a bridge, into a hot air balloon, for that matter. Territorial integrity is a whole new concept that Bush is now floating perhaps as a trial balloon.
He also spoke specifically about the Jewish state of Israel, which is, again, a code word for opposing the Palestinian right of return, which Bush has said, again in April 2004, in letters exchanged with Prime Minister Sharon that he would not accept. So this was essentially a restatement of the Bush administration’s endorsement of the Israeli plans for massive land annexation, rejection of the internationally legally required Palestinian right of return, as the basis for what the U.S. will call a commitment to a Palestinian state.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, thank you very much for joining us. Phyllis Bennis is author of Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy US Power. She is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.