President Donald Trump and his senior officials head to the United Nations’ annual gathering of world leaders this week focused on a narrow agenda that reflects domestic political concerns, the foreign policy challenge posed by Iran and – by design or default – a continued disconnect with many traditional US allies on the issue of climate change.
When world leaders gather Monday to focus on the UN Climate Action Summit, the US is sending a lower level State Department official who will not speak, leaving the US silent on an issue that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called “a direct existential threat” to the world.
Instead, the President will lead an event on religious freedom, an issue that plays to evangelicals who make up part of the political base he is relying on to win re-election. Trump and his Japanese counterpart are also expected to announce an agreement on trade. The President leveraged voters’ economic anxiety during his campaign, regularly rails against “unfair” trade arrangements and touts the benefits of bilateral pacts that give the US the upper hand.
The furor over reports Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son during a call earlier this summer is also likely to overshadow the President’s week, especially on Wednesday when he is due to meet his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.
‘An attack on everyone’
And while Trump and his administration have been openly skeptical of the value of international organizations and the UN in particular, this year they will be focused on lobbying the world community to join their push to bring Iran under control – an effort that could be an uphill battle, some analysts say.
The United Nations General Assembly is taking place in the wake of an attack on Saudi oil facilities that Yemen-based Houthi rebels, locked in an ongoing war with Saudi Arabia and its allies for control of the country, say they carried out. Iran has denied responsibility, but the Trump administration insists that is where the blame belongs.
Over the next few days, the Trump administration will stress that point to the audience gathered in New York and emphasize that the victim wasn’t just Saudi Arabia, but the international community. The strikes, attributed to a flotilla of drones and missiles, hit the world’s largest oil processing plant and an oil field and sent global oil prices soaring.
“It’s important to remember the attack on the Saudi facility is an attack on everyone,” a White House official said in a call with reporters on the administration’s plans for the UN.
The official said that was true of Asia in particular, which is heavily reliant on oil supplies from the Middle East.
The US is likely to lobby other countries to back a UN Security Council resolution on Iran and join the maritime security coalition that Washington is building to patrol the Persian Gulf, analysts said. US officials will discuss their efforts against Iran in bilateral meetings and group events, the White House official said, adding that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will also convene a meeting of Gulf and Middle Eastern allies to discuss countering Iran.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper stressed the international responsibility to act at the Pentagon Friday night, when he announced that the US will send additional troops to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at their request. Esper detailed Iran’s threats to global stability, citing the economic toll of the oil attacks, disruptions to international shipping in the Persian Gulf and Iran’s takedown of a US drone in June.
“Iran has increased costs on the international economy,” Esper said. “The international community has a responsibility to protect the global economy” as well as its rules and norms.
‘I always like a coalition’
Asked how critical it is to build a coalition to address Iran, Trump said Friday, “Well, I always like a coalition. And sometimes you find that people have made a lot of money that you’d want in the coalition…. other countries – Germany, France, Russia, many other countries – made a lot of money with Iran. And we didn’t make money with Iran….Everyone else is making money and we’re not.”
Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the administration will be “looking to see whether they can rally international support given that this was an Iranian strike, not on Saudi Arabia, but on oil markets worldwide. The message will be, this was an attack on your oil, on which your economies depend.”
Efforts by the US to get a Security Council resolution condemning Iran or taking action against it aren’t likely to go anywhere, as China and Russia have quietly supported Iran in the face of the US pressure campaign. “I’m skeptical,” Dubowitz said.
The administration will “see, coming out of UNGA, what they’ve been able to do on the diplomatic track and then, whatever sanctions and other options on the kinetic track are available,” he added.
While resistance from China and Russia is to be expected, Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said the administration may also have a hard time rallying allies who have been alienated by the administration’s departure from the Iran nuclear deal and its maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.
Where Europe, China, Russia and the US were once united in pressuring Iran to negotiate the 2015 agreement, Vatanka said that the Trump administration’s pursuit of increasingly intense sanctions has threatened the nuclear deal and “in the process, undermined the coalition we had created.”
Europe has worked to keep the nuclear pact alive.
“They don’t want to be part of a path to war against Iran because they don’t trust the US policy on Iran,” Vatanka said. “They don’t think it’s coherent, they don’t think it stands up to scrutiny. That’s not to say Iran is innocent, it’s not. It’s just that they don’t see how ‘maximum pressure’ takes you to the finish line.”
Vatanka characterized the criticism, saying, “Here we are today in the fall of 2019. Can we point to one place in the region where Iran is less present, where Iran is behaving better? To me that’s how you measure the success of the policy.”
European countries and other parties to the Iran nuclear deal have also been wary of the speed with which the US declared its certainty that Iran is responsible for the Saudi attack, Vatanka and others said.
The administration has not presented evidence to support its claim that Iran is responsible and has brushed aside the Houthi claims of responsibility. “This was an Iranian attack,” Pompeo said Wednesday. “It’s not the case that you can subcontract out the devastation of five percent of the world’s global energy supply and think that you can absolve yourself of responsibilities.”
Pompeo, who returned from a trip to the Mideast Friday morning, told reporters he was there to build a coalition to deter Tehran. And he made clear that the Trump administration will use the UN gathering to rally support. “I’m confident that in New York we’ll talk about this and that the Saudis will too,” Pompeo said.
He went on to cast Iran as a global threat, saying Trump had directed his team to “prevent them having the capacity to underwrite Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq, their own missile program, all the things that they have done to pose a threat to the world.”
‘We all pray’
Few think the US will take a kinetic military response, despite the troop movements and even in spite of Trump’s mixed messaging, but many observers expect world leaders to use their speeches to the General Assembly to issue pointed warnings against the use of force and its destabilizing effects in the Middle East.
Speaking in the Oval Office Friday after announcing a new round of sanctions on Iran, Trump said it would be easier for him to launch airstrikes, as some congressional Republicans and other hawks have advocated.
Instead, the President cast his decision as taking the harder road and signaled that he’s not considering a direct military response – even as he stressed the firepower at his command.
“We have the most powerful military in the world, by far,” Trump said. “There’s nobody close. As you know, we’ve spent tremendous and hopefully – and we pray to God we never have to use it, but we’ve totally renovated and bought new nuclear. And the rest of our military is all brand new.”
“The nuclear now is at a level that’s it’s never been before. And I can only tell you because I know – I know the problems of nuclear. I know the damages that – I know what happens. And I want to tell you: We all hope, and Scott hopes – we all pray that we never have to use nuclear. But there’s nobody that has anywhere close to what we have.”
CNN’s Ryan Browne and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report