The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

September 23, 2013

Obama opens UN talks with diplomatic opportunities

NEW YORK (AP) — President Barack Obama opens meetings at the United Nations with diplomatic opportunities on three vexing issues: Iran's disputed nuclear program, Syria's chemical weapons use, and elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

All three pathways are fraught with potential pitfalls and hinge on cooperation from often unreliable nations. Obama also risks being branded as naive and misguided if the efforts fail, particularly in Syria, where he's used the prospect of diplomacy to put off a military strike in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.

Still, the recent developments mark a significant shift on a trio of issues that have long proved problematic for Obama at the United Nations. His former Iranian counterpart used the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings, which open Monday, as a venue for fiery, anti-American speeches. Failed Middle East peace talks led the Palestinians to seek statehood recognition at the U.N. despite staunch American objections. And the Obama administration has been stymied on Syria at the U.N. Security Council due to intractable Russian opposition.

But this year, Iran has a new leader who is making friendly overtures toward Obama, raising the prospect of a meeting at the United Nations. U.S.-brokered peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have resumed — though on an uncertain course. And Russia has joined with the U.S. on a diplomatic deal to strip Syria of its chemical weapons.

Joel Rubin, a former State Department official who now works at the nonproliferation organization Ploughshares, said the confluence of events underscores an often frustrating aspect of diplomacy.

"You never know when it's going to break," said Rubin. He said Obama's biggest test now is to recognize if opportunities morph into stalling tactics.

Obama's advisers cast the sudden signs of progress as an outgrowth of the president's long-standing preference for resolving disputes through diplomacy and, in the case of Iran and Syria, with pressure built up through economic sanctions and the threat of military action.

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