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Will President Rouhani Attend a Key Security Council Session on Iran?

September 21, 2018
Faramarz Davar
10 min read
Will President Rouhani Attend a Key Security Council Session on Iran?

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has left for New York to attend the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, which opened on September 18. This is the sixth time Rouhani has attended the General Assembly — but it is his first trip to New York since US President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on May 8.

Rouhani’s speech at the General Assembly is scheduled for Tuesday, September 25, only a few hours apart from Donald Trump’s address. This month the US holds the rotating chairmanship of the Security Council and, after delivering his speech, Trump will head to a meeting of the council, where he will preside over it personally.

According to Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, Trump will “address Iran’s violations of international law and the general instability Iran sows throughout the entire Middle East region...It’s hard to find a place where there is conflict and Iran isn’t in the middle of it. We think they’ve been ignored and given a pass for too long, and we think it’s time for Iran to stand up and explain themselves.”

Late on Thursday, September 20, however, the New York Times reported: “The White House has backed off a plan to devote the Security Council session to Iran, responding to protests from European officials, who feared that it would showcase divisions over the nuclear deal, which they continue to honor. Mr. Trump’s aides also worried that it could backfire on him by giving Iran’s leaders a platform to confront him.” Foreign Minister Zarif had said earlier that if this account was true, then it would show that the US has been defeated and is retreating. Nevertheless, at the time of publishing, the program published by the US delegation had not changed officially and Iran still appears as a main item on the Security Council agenda.

Iran is not a member of the Security Council, but if a country is the subject of discussions at the council then the representatives of that country have the right to attend the meeting and respond. But now that Donald Trump is going to be the chairman of this session, the question of whether President Rouhani should attend the meeting has led to a war of words between his supporters and opponents.

The UN Security Council is composed of five permanent members and 10 rotating members, who are selected for two years by the General Assembly. Iran has served only a one two-year term at the Security Council but over the years it has had to deal with the council at various sensitive junctures.

Prime Minister Mosaddegh: 1951 (in French)

Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran’s nationalist prime minister (1951-53), is the highest ranking Iranian official to attend a session at the Security Council up to now. At the time, the UK had filed two complaints against Iran for nationalizing its oil industry that, since 1909, had been under the total control of the British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which oversaw exploration, management, production and sales. One complaint was filed with the International Court of Justice in the Hague and the second complaint was submitted to the UN Security Council.

On October 7, 1951, only nine days after London complained to the Security Council, Mosaddegh flew to New York to personally respond to the council to the UK’s accusations. He was accompanied by Allahyar Saleh, who was later appointed as Iran’s ambassador in Washington, Hossein Fatemi, Mosaddegh’s parliamentary deputy, government spokesman and later foreign minister, Hossein Navab, Iran’s chargé d’affaires in the Netherlands, Ahmad Matin Daftari, a prominent Iranian lawyer, and Gholamhossein Mosaddegh, his son and his doctor. Ali Naghi Ardalan, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, joined them in New York.

On October 16, 1951, the Security Council started its deliberations on the UK’s complaint against Iran. Mosaddegh and his companions were present and the Iranian prime minister was the first one to deliver a speech, addressing the session in French, an official language of the United Nations [video].

“Mr. President and the respectable members of the Security Council,” he said. “Today I have come to this council to convey to you and to the people of the world the voice of Iranian people in response to the baseless claims of the British government. Although for reasons that we would offer later we do not accept the jurisdiction of the Security Council in this litigation, we cannot deny that the United Nations is the highest authority responsible for world peace...”

The session lasted for four days and the full speech, including his introductory remarks, were given to the members in written form and Iranian representatives read the speech in English for the record. After four days the Security Council approved France’s motion to suspend the hearings, effectively dismissing the complaint. It was seen as a victory for the Iranian prime minister.

Of course, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, because in 1953 the United States, with British help, staged a coup that toppled Mosaddegh.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: 2007 (no show)

More than half a century after Mosaddegh’s speech at the Security Council and amidst international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, the Security Council was preparing to vote on tougher sanctions on Iran when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked to attend the voting session [Persian link]. Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was then Iran’s ambassador to the UN, sent a letter to Dumisani Kumalo from South Africa, the rotating chairman of the council, and informed him of Ahmadinejad’s request.

Since New York is the seat of the United Nations, the US government must issue special visas for participants in  General Assembly sessions. At the time, US officials announced they had received visa requests for an Iranian delegation of 38, including Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Ali Larijani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Of this delegation 10 were diplomats.

The US representative at the UN called Ahmadinejad’s request amazing and said: “He has declared that the council lacks legitimacy and has announced that its resolution is no more than a piece of paper. Why does he now want to deliver a speech at the Security Council that he does not believe is legitimate?”

Ahmadinejad had said he wanted to defend “Iran’s principled positions and its unquestionable right to develop nuclear energy,” but when the day arrived that the council was to vote on the draft resolution on sanctions against Iran, Ahmadinejad did not show up for unknown reasons.

Iranian foreign ministry officials, including Abbas Araghchi, the deputy minister in international affairs, first claimed that the US had refused to issue visas, but the US government announced that it had issued visas for the Iranian president and his delegation. Then Mohammad Ali Hosseini, a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, blamed a delay in them receiving the visas.

Resolution 1747 to toughen sanctions against Iran was unanimously approved by all 15 members of the Security Council on March 24, 2007, without even a single abstention. The resolution was passed under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter that binds the members to strict enforcement of the resolution. The resolution also condemned Iran for violating previous Security Council resolutions and gave it 60 days to suspend its uranium enrichment program. It also placed a large number of Iranian civilian and military officials and entities on its sanctions list.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, his deputy Abbas Araghchi and Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, were present during the vote on the resolution. Mottaki was allowed to speak at the meeting only after the resolution had passed, but an address by him or by Ahmadinejad, had he been present, would not have made the slightest difference to the vote.

President Hassan Rouhani: 2018 (Will he?)

Sixty-seven years after Mosaddegh delivered a speech at the Security Council and 11 years after Ahmadinejad failed to show up, the question is: Should President Rouhani attend the Security Council session as President Trump is presides over it and Iran will be a topic of the council’s discussions?

There are major differences between the forthcoming meeting and the two other occasions cited above.

Premier Mosaddegh went to the Security Council after the British government filed a complaint against Iran and as the council was getting ready to deliberate on whether the nationalization of Iran's oil industry constituted a threat to international peace and security. Mosaddegh’s speech convinced a majority of the members of the Security Council that the question was not urgent and that Iran was no threat to the international security and order.

More than five decades later, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed an interest in addressing the Security Council, the body had already adopted two resolutions labeling Iran as “a threat to international peace and security” and hoped to pass a third announcing that the threat was bound to continue. It passed the resolution unanimously and imposed more sanctions on Iran in the presence of the Iranian foreign minister. Council members had discussed the draft of Resolution 1747 for weeks before the vote and Iran could only address the council after the votes were cast, so what any Iranian official at any level said made no difference to the outcome. 

Now Trump, who has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement despite opposition from the United States’ western allies including the European Union, and who has re-imposed nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, will preside over the Security Council. He hopes to raise  Iran’s ballistic missile program and the role that Tehran plays in the Middle East. In this, he has the relative support of other western members of the Security Council, especially France.

The rules of the United Nations allow Iran to attend this session at any level that it chooses. And unlike when Ahmadinejad missed the opportunity to attend because, Iran claimed, his visa was delayed, it is public knowledge that Rouhani has a visa and that he will be in New York during the 73rd UN General Assembly.

If Rouhani attends the Security Council meeting, it might somewhat soften the tone of the rhetoric against the Islamic Republic, but it will not preclude a verbal condemnation of Iran on questions of its missile program and its regional policies. Besides, for months now, Trump has said that he is ready to meet and talk with Rouhani “with no preconditions.”

Members of President Rouhani’s staff have reported that in 2017, when Rouhani was in New York, they were approached several times by Trump administration officials suggesting a meeting between the two presidents, but Rouhani rejected these offers. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has opposed further negotiations between Iran and the US in no uncertain terms. And, even after six years, he has once again complained about the famous telephone conversation between Rouhani and President Obama.

Of course it is still possible that Rouhani will attend the Security Council session, in which case he would come face to face with Trump. And yet, in the environment that Ayatollah Khamenei has created, the consequences for Rouhani and his government could be unpleasant. It is possible that, instead of Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif will attend the meetings, but in 2015 when, by chance, he came across President Obama in the corridors of the UN in New York and shook hands with him, the handshake proved costly for Zarif, leading to hardliner attacks against him. “America is still the enemy of the Iranian nation and the US insists on its enmity towards Iran,” said Mansour Haghighatpour, a member of the parliament. “Therefore, shaking hands with the enemy is contrary to the revolution's principles and against the nation's rights.” Another lawmaker, Mohammad Hassan Asafari, told the Associated Press that there should be an “investigation” to determine what the circumstances were. Another lawmaker, Mohammad Hassan Asafari, told the Associated Press that he also thought there should be an “investigation.”

All discussions at the Security Council are saved in UN records and can be used for later reference for future actions taken by the council. From this point of view, the 2018 Security Council session could prove to be momentous and historical, even if Rouhani or Zarif do not attend.


More on the recent war of words between the Islamic Republic and the US government:

, September 3, 2018

Why the Supreme Leader Banned Direct Talks with the US, August 14, 2018

Was the Guards Commander’s Response to Trump Unconstitutional?, August 2, 2018

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Commander Threatens Trump, July 26, 2018

Decoding Iran’s Politics: The 12-Point US Ultimatum, July 6, 2018

Can Iran Legally Close the Strait of Hormuz?, July 5, 2018

The 12 Demands of Pompeo's New Iran Strategy, May 21, 2018

Pompeo to Lay out New Iran Strategy, May 21, 2018




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