At UN, Trump Challenges the World to Isolate Iran, Toughens Line on Syria

American president suggested a shift in military posture toward Assad’s chemical weapons program

In his annual speech at the UN General Assembly in New York, U.S. President Donald Trump issued a stern message to Iran, its proxies, and any international elements that enable it. “Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death, and destruction,” he said. “They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations. Instead, Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond.”

Noting his decision to abrogate the Iranian nuclear deal and subsequent “campaign of economic pressure to deny the regime the funds it needs to advance its bloody agenda,” Trump said that the U.S. “ask[s] all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues. And we ask all nations to support Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.”

With respect to other conflicts in the region, some observers drew attention to a subtle shift in rhetoric on the part of the President regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons. “Rest assured,” he said, “the United States will respond if chemical weapons are deployed by the Assad regime.” The implication of the use of the term “deployed” instead of “used” is that the U.S. may strike Syria in response to the mere movement of chemical weapons, as a preemptive measure against a possible attack.

The nuances of these remarks may have captured less attention in the United States than in Iran. While Americans focused on domestic controversies arising from alleged sexual impropriety by a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Tehran regime apparently had its eyes on Trump.

President Hassan Rouhani, also in New York for the UN gathering, gave an interview to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in which he denied having asked for a meeting with President Trump. “Not this year, nor last year,” he said. “We have never made such a request for a meeting with the President of the United States.” It was the Trump Administration, he said, that had sent eight requests to the Iranian government for a meeting last year — back Rouhani rejected the overtures.

Relatedly, a day before Trump’s speech, the foreign policy chief of the European Union announced that Europe, China, and Russia had developed a new payment mechanism to allow each other to continue doing business with Iran while skirting U.S. sanctions. Dubbed the “special purpose vehicle” (SPV), it aims to “assist and reassure economic operators pursuing legitimate business with Iran.”

The move came shortly ahead of a looming second round of U.S. sanctions to hit Iran’s oil sector on November 4.

American specialists on the dynamics of Iranian sanctions conveyed doubts as to whether the SPV would achieve its intended purpose. Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told CNBC that the scheme would be “instantly stigmatized by the U.S.,” which would proceed to sanction it “much like it could any other entity attempting to conduct trade with Iran.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s UN remarks were effectively reinforced by his national security adviser, John Bolton, in remarks at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly Tuesday. “According to the mullahs in Tehran, we are 'the Great Satan,' lord of the underworld, master of the raging inferno,” he said. So, I might imagine they would take me seriously when I assure them today: If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.”

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