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The United Nations General Assembly in 2012.Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
More than 100,000 people have died in the two-and-a-half-year conflict, which has escalated sharply over the last four weeks. Both the rebels and the government of President Bashar al-Assad hurled accusations over a deadly chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, and the US began what seemed like an inevitable march toward air strikes to punish the regime for the incident. In the past two weeks, however, an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's wrangling of its ally Assad appear to have staved off any intervention for the moment on the basis of a Syrian agreement to surrender its chemical weapon stocks. What remains to be seen is what form a UN resolution backing Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons will take. The veto-wielding Western powers in the Security Council -- the U.K., France and the US -- want a resolution that authorizes the use of military force should Syria fail to meet its obligations. Russia and China, meanwhile, have made clear that they would use their veto power to prevent such a resolution's adoption. A vote is expected as early as this weekend but could be dragged out further.
But even if the chemical weapon stockpiles are safely destroyed, the people of Syria will remain in the same situation as before. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and joint UN–Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi have said countless times that the only solution for Syria's war is a political one. But Russia and Iran continue to support Assad diplomatically, financially and militarily, and the US, EU and Gulf states support the rebels in much the same way. The conflict has spilled over into neighboring countries and is fueling violence in the region, and more than 2 million refugees have fled. Any solution seems a long way off.
Iran's new outreach
For the past eight years, New York has treated Iran's president as the pantomime villain of the annual UN spectacle. That was because the role belonged to arch provocateur Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was blacklisted by five-star hotels around Manhattan, his Holocaust denial serving as a lightning rod for protests across the city. But new President Hassan Rouhani has been on a charm offensive since taking office in August, his recent diplomatic signals suggesting an eagerness to repair relations with the US.
On Wednesday, Rouhani told NBC News that his government would never develop nuclear weapons. Days before that, Tehran released 11 prominent political prisoners. Earlier this month, he sent New Year's greetings to Jews around the world on Twitter. The White House has cautiously welcomed what seems to be an olive branch from Tehran, saying it hoped the Iranian government would "engage substantively" to reach a solution and address concerns about Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects could be aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Thursday in a Washington Post op-ed, Rouhani urged the world to "seize the opportunity presented by Iran's recent election" and "respond genuinely to my government's efforts to engage in constructive dialogue." Last Sunday in an interview with ABC, President Barack Obama said he and Rouhani have exchanged letters, feeding speculation that the two presidents may meet on the sidelines of the assembly -- which would be the first meeting between Iranian and American leaders since before the 1979 hostage crisis.
Even a casual Rouhani-Obama chat in the corridors of the UN building would be taken by many Iran watchers as improving the prospects for a diplomatic solution to the protracted stalemate over Tehran's nuclear program.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made headlines around the world during last year's General Assembly when he held up a cartoon graphic of a bomb supposedly illustrating Iran's uranium-enrichment capability and drew a thick red line at the point he said Israel would be forced to attack Iran. Despite the prime minister's rhetoric, Israel has continued to rely on US-led efforts to pressure Iran and on Obama's vow to take military action if that became necessary to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Still, the Israeli leader has consistently pressured the US to take a tougher stand on Iran, and with the focus of the conversation moving toward the question of renewed diplomacy between Washington and Tehran, many UN watchers will be keeping a close eye on Netanyahu's response to Obama's outreach efforts and on an Oct. 1 speech by Netanyahu for signs of the message he's sending supporters in Washington. The fact that Iran will be represented at the UN session by the more moderate and engaging Rouhani rather than the bellicose Ahmadinejad poses a messaging challenge to the Israelis. Although the speech will be the Israeli leader's public message, he'll no doubt offer a more frank assessment in his White House meeting with Obama a day earlier.
What about the Palestinians?
The Palestinian leadership's bid for recognition of a Palestinian state -- to the chagrin of Israel and the annoyance of the Obama administration -- has been a major feature of the past two General Assembly sessions, but the issue appears likely to receive little attention this year. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will address the assembly on Sept. 26, but there won't be any renewal of the statehood bid, which led to a major diplomatic showdown in New York in 2011. The bid failed that year after the matter was tabled by the Security Council.
In November 2012 the General Assembly passed a resolution that designated Palestine a "non-member observer state," an upgrade from the PLO's previous status as an "observer entity." While the PLO and its allies said that the move gave Palestine implicit recognition as a state at the UN, even without Security Council approval, the vote had no practical impact on the situation on the ground. Last month, amid widespread skepticism and continuing conflict over Israel's expansion of illegal settlements in occupied territory, Israel and the PLO resumed peace talks under the auspices of Kerry. But the content of the renewed talks is being kept secret at the insistence of the US. The only major conference on the issue planned for this year's General Assembly session is an annual donors' meeting sponsored by the Norwegian government. Kerry is scheduled to speak, but the meeting will be closed to the press.
Millennium Development Goals
The deadline for the ambitious Millennium Development Goals -- which range from halving the extreme poverty rate to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by 2015 -- is looming. While progress has been made, with rates of HIV infection and maternal and infant mortality falling, attaining many of the goals is still far off. Monday sees a high-level meeting on them, during which diplomats can expect a status update on development around the world.
James Bays and Whitney Hurst contributed reporting from the United Nations