International

UN General Assembly session begins amid talk of US-Iran meeting

Syria will be high on the agenda as reports fly about sideline meetings between Obama and Rouhani

A tally is displayed after a UN General Assembly vote in favor of a resolution calling for a political transition in Syria on May 15, 2013, in New York City.
John Moore/Getty Images

On Tuesday as the United Nations kicked off the 68th session of the General Assembly, a two-week dialogue in New York City among world leaders, a letter exchange between President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, has international media questioning whether the two will meet on the sidelines of the gathering.

If the two convene, it will be the first direct discussion between U.S. and Iranian presidents since the 1979 revolution.

Rouhani seemed to suggest Tuesday that the world should be more cautiously optimistic about the assembly's portents for Iran's opening up to the outside world.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is the "only Iranian official currently scheduled to meet with" British Foreign Secretary William Hague in New York this week, Rouhani tweeted, apparently quelling expectations of higher-level dialogues between Tehran and London.

While it remains unclear whether Obama and Rouhani will meet, the stakes are still high. Obama told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that Iran's nuclear program is a "far larger issue for us" than Syria's chemical weapons attack in August. 

In a sign that there may be conflicting opinions in Tehran over what some say is Rouhani's project to reform domestic politics and open up the Islamic Republic to the West, the nation unblocked Twitter and Facebook after a 2009 ban for just a few hours before the block was reinstated

Syria on the agenda

The UN has yet to publish a full agenda for the second week, beginning Sept. 23, but the session is already set to address such issues as nuclear disarmament, international migration and development and inclusivity for the world's disabled people.

Syria will get top billing. Members of the UN Security Council -- composed of Russian, US, British, French and Chinese diplomats -- will meet Tuesday to discuss a draft resolution on removing Syria's chemical stockpile, Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the UN, told Reuters.

The resolution abides by a US and Russian framework agreement, revealed Saturday. Two days after Moscow and Washington reached the accord, the UN released a report saying there is "overwhelming and indisputable" evidence that chemical weapons were used in Syria's ongoing civil war.

The report stops short of blaming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the alleged attack, which Washington says killed more than 1,400 people.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that the report leaves no doubt about Assad's role in the attack.

"When you look at the amount of sarin gas used, the vectors, the techniques behind such an attack as well as other aspects, it seems to leave no doubt that the (Assad) regime is behind it," Fabius told journalists, after a meeting with Russian diplomats in Moscow.

General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic in a public statement Monday decried the UN's "glaring failure" to halt the carnage in Syria, which has claimed over 100,000 lives since the start of the conflict in March 2011.

"To end the fratricide, we've got to have high-level political dialogue. We need to bring the parties together and make them talk to each other face to face," Jeremic said.

Harsh words for Sudan

Washington on Monday condemned Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's application for a visa to attend the General Assembly. Bashir is accused of orchestrating genocide during the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, in which some 200,000 people have been killed.

Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, said Bashir should stand trial instead of attending the international forum. 

"Such a trip would be deplorable, cynical and hugely inappropriate," Power told reporters in New York.

"It would be more appropriate for him to present himself to the ICC and travel to The Hague," she added, referring to the International Criminal Court, where Bashir face 10 charges as an indirect perpetrator, according to the court's website.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to comment on whether Bashir would get a visa -- such applications are confidential under US law -- but she and other U.S. officials made no secret of their hostility to a visit.

With wire services

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