Trump’s focus on Iran and impeachment inquiry were highlights of UN appearance

US president met only two leaders from Middle East – his counterparts from Egypt and Iraq

US President Donald Trump walks to board Air Force One prior to departure from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, September 26, 2019. / AFP / SAUL LOEB
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Donald Trump’s third participation in the United Nations General Assembly will be remembered for being interrupted by Congress launching an impeachment inquiry and for the president making Iran the central focus of his meetings on the Middle East.

Ahead of his arrival in New York, speculation mounted that Mr Trump may meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. But as French diplomatic efforts fell through, the US imposed more sanctions, and the investigation into Iran’s role in the Saudi Aramco attacks drew more international support, the chances of such a meeting dissipated.

Instead, US efforts on Iran at the 74th UNGA were focused on supporting a UN-led investigation into the September 14 attacks and using the results to pressure Iran at the Security Council. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the statement by Britain, France and Germany on Tuesday that blamed Iran for the attacks and called for negotiations that encompass a “regional framework” that addresses Iranian behaviour. The US also put emphasis at the need to extend the Iran arms embargo and travel ban on some of its elite Quds Force, which expire in October next year.

On Thursday, the US government announced more measures “restricting entry into the United States for senior Iranian government officials and members of their families”. The tit for tat between Iran and the United States is expected to continue for some time to come.

Regionally, Mr Pompeo hosted his counterparts from the GCC countries as well as Jordan and Iraq on Tuesday under the umbrella of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (Mesa). Iraq appears to have replaced Egypt in the GCC+2 formula after its withdrawal last April.

A US statement released after the meeting said the participants “emphasised the importance of regional co-ordination to confront the region’s challenges, including through multilateral initiatives such as the International Maritime Security Construct and the Mesa”.

“The secretary and the foreign ministers discussed the growing challenges that Russia and China present to the region’s stability and security,” it added.

Iraq's participation is a win for the United States, a US official told The National.

Zack Gold, an analyst at US think tank CNA, said Iraq’s participation was another attempt by the Iraqi government "to balance tensions in the region, following the invitation for regional players to meet in Baghdad”.

But disagreements continue among Mesa's potential participants "as to biggest threats facing the region – and whether Iran is the top priority among them", Mr Gold told The National.

“Iraq is less likely than Egypt to take a confrontational stance against Iran,” he said.

The statement said “the GCC and the United States stressed the need to counter Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region”, without referring Iraq or Jordan.

Mr Trump did not touch on other pressing issues in the Middle East during his time in New York. His speech on Tuesday did not address Yemen, Libya, Syria or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. His bilateral meetings included only two regional leaders: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Iraqi President Barham Salih.

Mr Trump did not meet the leaders of Turkey, Jordan, Palestine or Qatar. A meeting or a "pull aside" chat between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mr Trump was expected on Monday but did not take place.

Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said he was not surprised. “With tensions about Iran, ever constant focus on Russia and China, a photo-op with Mr Erdogan and a short pull aside just isn’t a huge priority for Donald Trump.”

Mr Stein told The National that "the US has made yet another offer to Turkey, to box the S-400 [Russian missile defence system], then buy the Patriot system, and get a free trade deal and F-35 jets".

It is not clear whether Turkey will accept the proposal, but the two side have also made slight progress on co-operation in northern Syria, where Ankara has concerns about the presence of a US-backed Kurdish militia.

“The ball is in Ankara’s court. What is left to talk about?” Mr Stein said.

The US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey and Mr Erdogan’s adviser Ibrahim Kalin met on Tuesday.

Mr Trump left New York on Thursday for the White House, where he will be increasingly focused on battling the impeachment inquiry by Democrats in the House of Representatives.