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Rocket man and Zionist penguins: The week in UN diplomacy

A look at key Middle Eastern moments from an engaging week of statecraft at the United Nations

UNITED NATIONS // Over the years, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has hosted some standout moments of political theatre. The key event this year was United States President Donald Trump’s debut speech, in which he threatened North Korea’s “rocket man” with annihilation.

Trump’s vow to “totally destroy” the hermit Asian nation of 26 million people along with its missile-toting leader, Kim Jong Un, certainly made the General Assembly’s biggest headline, but the gabfest in New York was not lacking in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

From Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s feeble “dad gags” from the marble dais to Trump’s signal that he would pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Middle East Eye picked out the key events for the region from the diplomatic din.

Bibi’s penguin friends

It’s been a tough few months for Netanyahu. The corruption probe is closing in, his wife Sara faces an indictment over $100,000 of dining bills and, all the while, there are foes across Israel’s borders and within his coalition government.

The pressures of leadership may account for some of the screwball moments in a 25-minute UN speech that was loaded with quips alongside his more usual shtick of pro-Israel eulogies and censure of regional bogeyman Iran.

For starters, the Likud leader took delegates on a journey to Antarctica, for the improbable revelation that the flightless birds swimming in the southern hemisphere’s icy waters are “enthusiastic supporters of Israel”.

“You laugh, but penguins have no difficulty recognising that some things are black and white, are right and wrong,” he said.

He was wrong about the first part: the audience had not laughed.

Next, he showcased his exasperation at denunciations of Israel from UN agencies. Netanyahu cited US tennis legend John McEnroe and affected a half-plausible New York accent to recite the athlete’s trademark line: “You can-not be serious!”

Finally, Netanyahu regaled a shrinking crowd with a yarn about Israel’s holy sites.

For proof, they could look in the Bible, he said. The book is not just a “great read” that he studies weekly and recommends “highly,” but also one that gets “4½ out of 5 stars on Amazon,” an online shopping website.

For some delegates, it was not just Netanyahu’s jokes that were cringe-worthy. His fawning praise of the 45th US president raised a few eyebrows. It began by recalling Trump’s visit to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall in May.

“When the president touched those ancient stones, he touched our hearts forever,” Netanyahu said.

He peppered his speech with venerations of Trump. The president’s words from the same podium earlier on Tuesday morning had been “bolder” and “more courageous” than any other he had heard uttered under the UN’s domed roof, he added.

He was not the only leader that gave admiring speeches regarding Trump.

Before talks with his US counterpart on Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Trump’s commitment to Middle East peace would help yield the “deal of the century” in the region.

A good week for Qatar

The Gulf island of Qatar got a boost in its 108-day-old rift with four neighbours at the UN headquarters this week.

First, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani used his podium set piece to attack Saudi Arabia and its blockade colleagues. Later on Tuesday, his face-time with Trump was viewed as a signal that the US will not prioritise one Gulf ally over another.

From the UN rostrum, Sheikh Tamim accused his neighbours of using a boycott on food, medicine and other items to “destabilise” Qatar and extract policy concessions. “Isn’t this one of the definitions of terrorism?” he asked.

Early in the crisis, Trump had sided with Riyadh and called Qatar a “funder of terrorism”. But he has since worked to broker a way out of the impasse. Before his sit-down with Sheikh Tamim, he told reporters the dispute “will be solved pretty quickly”.

Sheikh Tamim said Washington’s “interference will help a lot”. That may be true. This week, a Bloomberg story said Trump had talked the Saudis and Emiratis out of their plans to use military force against Qatar earlier in the face-off.

“Those who oppose Qatar were obviously looking for signs that Trump would throw the emir under the bus. But it’s now clear that the US is trying to resolve the crisis in a way that doesn’t put the blame on any one party,” analyst Sigurd Neubauer told MEE.

Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute, a think-tank, agreed. “Whatever Riyadh says, more countries worry about Saudi-spread extremism than they do about Qatar-funded terrorism,” he told MEE.

Iran nuke deal has a half-life

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran looked like it was decaying faster than an unstable isotope.

Trump called it “an embarrassment” during his speech to the 193-nation assembly and later tantalisingly told journalists he had already decided if he would move to pull the US out of the accord, but did not elaborate.

He is due to report to the US Congress by 15 October on whether to certify that Iran is upholding its side of the bargain, under which it accepted limits on its nuclear work. That could lead to Congress re-imposing sanctions and an unravelling of the deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani bit back, saying the internationally backed accord should not be upended by “rogue newcomers to the world of politics,” in a clear swipe at Trump.

Netanyahu, who has long railed against a deal that was brokered during Barack Obama’s presidency, urged leaders to “fix it, or nix it”.

Despite frantic diplomacy between the US and its co-signatories on Wednesday, including the first face-time between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, it remains unclear which route Trump will take.

Doha up, Riyadh down

Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s heavyweights, typically plays a king-size role at General Assembly confabs. This year, its highest-ranking envoy has been Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, as Riyadh kept a lower profile than usual.

Jubeir attended sessions on Rohingya bloodshed and Syria’s civil war and met with British counterpart Boris Johnson, among others. But the foreign policy jamboree did not make fertile ground for Saudis this year, UN insiders told MEE.

The row with Qatar has dragged out longer than expected, Riyadh faces growing outrage over civilian body bags from its coalition war in Yemen and it could soon be named on the UN’s “list of shame” of armed groups that harm children.

“Saudi Arabia cares about its reputation and has built a narrative that it is addressing concerns over civilian casualties during its war in Yemen,” said Dragica Mikavica, from the pressure group Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict.

Shaming Riyadh for abuses in Yemen at the UN would be laudable, but may not affect real change, she added. “It would likely not seriously deter its backers and arms suppliers in Britain and the US,” Mikavica told MEE.

The kingdom is also in the crosshairs of a civil case in US courts – enabled by the 2016 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) – which allows Americans to sue Riyadh over its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

Terry Strada, who lost her husband on 9/11, said petrodollar lobbying potential has waned.

“The tide has turned and their money does not buy them the influence that it used to in Washington,” Strada told MEE. “You know why? It’s because they’re guilty. It’s not a secret anymore.”

Elsewhere at UNGA

There was plenty of other Middle East action at UN headquarters this week. On Thursday, the Security Council approved the creation of a UN investigation unit to collect evidence against fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq for future war crimes and genocide prosecutions.

Earlier, British Prime Minister Theresa May took aim at Facebook, Google and other social media giants, urging them to more swiftly remove “terrorist content” from the internet and aim to stop it being uploaded in the first place.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used his podium slot to warn that a Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq this month could lead to fresh conflicts in the region. He later threatened to impose sanctions against the potential splitters.

Diplomats were unusually optimistic about Libya. UN envoy Ghassan Salame unveiled a roadmap to break a political stalemate in the North African country, which is ruled by three competing governments and has seen little but turmoil since a 2011 uprising.

Despite the scale of human suffering they produce, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen were notably absent from the lips of many envoys this week. With little prospect of diplomatic breakthroughs in either war, world leaders seemingly focused on more pressing headaches.

This article first appeared on Middle East Eye.



A mushroom cloud hangs over Obama’s Hiroshima visit

Has the world failed to learn any lessons from the 1945 US atomic strikes on Japan?

LAGRANGEVILLE, NEW YORK // Of all her painful memories from August 6, 1945, what vexes Tomiko Morimoto West the most is how she argued with her mother on that fateful day, trumpeting her role in Japan’s war effort and slamming the door on her way out.

It was an eventful morning in Hiroshima. The world’s first deployed atomic bomb burst into a 4,000C fireball and flattened the city with a hurricane-like blast, killing thousands instantly and some 140,000 by the end of the year.

West, now 84, recalls a B-29 bomber painting “beautiful” vapour trails above Hiroshima. A “bright, bright light” and the thud of buildings falling. A red flare, looming like a setting sun. A city-wide inferno. Black rain. Charred flesh. Riverbeds full of corpses.

But her overriding memory is how she, as a hot-headed 13-year-old, left her mother on bad terms. At the time, lessons were cancelled and schoolchildren worked in farms and factories or trained to fight off gun-toting US infantrymen with bamboo sticks.

Pumped up with pride and nationalist fervour, her parting words were: “I’m working every day for the government.” The door slammed. It was weeks before she found her mother’s body, under a crushed building, only identifiable by her clothing.

“When you leave the house you have to hug. You never know, you might not see each other again. Had I known she would have died that day, would I have argued? I never would have done that,” West said.

“So, every morning I go pray. I say: ‘Mum, I’m sorry. I was not very nice’.”

It was a tough lesson, but not the only one that month. Nagasaki’s people learned the destructive power of atomic weapons on August 9 and, six days later, Japanese Emperor Hirohito and his generals agreed to surrender, ending World War II.

As Japan picked itself out of the rubble, West left the blighted area, studied and got a job with the occupying US forces. She later married a US serviceman. Nowadays, they live in the leafy Hudson Valley, in an all-American home with Japanese cherry blossoms growing at the front.

Like Tomiko and Melvin West, the US and Japan get on fine these days. On Friday, Barack Obama will become the first sitting US president to tour Hiroshima’s ground zero, accompanied by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

It is a big deal for both countries and revives a thorny question: was the US right to drop apocalyptic bombs on civilians, ostensibly to hasten Japan’s surrender and avert a land invasion that would prove costly in US lives?

Critics of that decision say Japan would have surrendered anyway, and that Washington was more interested in showing off its new city-killers to the Soviet Union, pre-empting the coming Cold War and its nuclear arms race.

This puts Obama on the spot. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is warier of deploying military hardware than many of his predecessors and his decision to lay a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial suggests remorse over the double doomsday bombings.

White House officials say Obama will not apologise during his remarks. Fifty-six percent of Americans believe the atomic strikes were justified under the circumstances, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll.

Joseph Gerson, an anti-war activist, said a formal US apology would “upset the debate in the coming presidential election” and give Republicans ammunition against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, who pledges to advance Obama’s legacy.

“But, at some point, you have to face history,” Gerson, from the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, told Al Jazeera.

Obama’s problems do not end there. In April 2009, upon taking office, he delivered a speech in Prague calling for a world without nuclear weapons. Now his presidency is winding down, critics question his efforts on nuclear disarmament.

There have been gains. The New START deal with Russia, ratified in 2010, limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550. Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit meetings have reduced global stockpiles of weapon-making isotopes.

His 2015 nuclear deal with Iran may have helped avert a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. According to Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser, the administration has “bent the curve in the right direction”.

But the gains may be dwarfed by the setbacks.

The US is spending as much as $1 trillion over three decades to modernise its nuclear arms stockpiles. Britain plans to renew its missile-launching submarines. North Korea is now believed to be able to mount a small nuclear warhead on missiles capable of striking neighbours.

Pakistan is deploying small, tactical nuclear weapons that are vulnerable to theft or misuse. Kenneth Luongo, president and founder of the Center for a Secure Nuclear Future, a policy group, described the situation as a “free-for-all in South Asia”.

According to Setsuko Thurlow, 84, a Japanese peace activist who was 1.8km from the hypocentre of Hiroshima’s blast, Obama is a “decent human being” but he “hasn’t done enough to be complimented” on his nuclear disarmament efforts.

Thurlow has her own horror stories from the carnage of 1945. She recalls “thick, black liquid” oozing from sickened relatives as their organs rotted. When dressing, she scoured her skin for “purple spots” of radiation poisoning that were a “sure sign you were to die”.

A witness to such terrors, the Toronto resident argues fervently for wholesale nuclear disarmament. Her views are shared by many younger people who endured the Cold War, fearful of nuclear Armageddon. For millennials, however, the threat is less palpable.

“People went back to sleep,” Thurlow told Al Jazeera.

Prospects for more deals between the world’s top nuclear hoarders – Russia and the US – are bleak, given tensions over Ukraine and Syria. Instead, activists focus on a so-called “humanitarian initiative” to stigmatise nuclear arms via UN talks in Geneva.

Others call for unilateral disarmament – a move that requires more courage than most politicians can stomach.

“The pathway to ultimate nuclear disarmament is filled with hairpin twists, and is a very long road,” Luongo said. Belt-tightening in Washington, Moscow and other cash-strapped capitals may hasten arms reductions more quickly than pressure groups, he added.

Army chiefs want weapons they can use on battlefields, not locked up in missile silos. “At some point, decision-making will be driven by dollars, not necessarily by ideology or by arms control calculations,” Luongo said.

This would, of course, fall short of the universal scrapping of nuclear weapons demanded by Thurlow, West and other survivors of Little Boy – the oddly innocent codename for the bomb that levelled their city. But it may be the best deal on offer in an unstable world.

West learned her lesson from Hiroshima. Her mother’s memory looms large. Instead of rowing with her husband, she turns the other cheek. “I just say: ‘OK’. My mother should just see me now,” said West, who doesn’t have children. “I’m like a different person.”

But broader lessons from the calamity have not been learned. Seven decades since mushroom clouds towered over southern Japan, it seems as though humanity will still have enough weapons to wipe out life on the planet for many years to come.

“School systems are failing; media is failing; governments are failing to help young people understand the world they live in,” said Thurlow. “They don’t know what it means to live in a nuclear age.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.