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Iran, North Korea, Syria, Lebanon Top UN Diplomatic Initiatives

The United Nations was the scene of high-level talks on Iran, North Korea and the Middle East Monday on the sidelines of the annual General Assembly debate. Syria was singled out for criticism at an event called to consolidate support for Lebanon's new government.

Senior officials from the United States, European and Arab nations joined Secretary-General Kofi Annan Monday in urging Syria to stop interfering in Lebanon. The group, calling itself Friends of Lebanon, pledged political and financial backing to help Beirut's newly elected government recover from decades of Syrian occupation.

At a news conference after the gathering, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice renewed the U.S. call for Syria to end its political interference in Lebanon. "Lebanon has to be free of foreign interference. This is an issue of national sovereignty of Lebanon," she said.

Secretary Rice also urged Syria to cooperate fully with the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

In separate encounters with U.N. reporters, Ms. Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw both hailed North Korea's pledge to give up its nuclear weapons in return for aid and security guarantees.

Secretary Straw suggested the North Korean pledge might serve as an example for Iran as the International Atomic Energy Agency takes up the issue of whether to refer Tehran's non-compliance to the U.N. Security Council.

"What that example shows is that isolation and defiance of the international community does not work, however fanciful individual nations may think it can work. And however long it takes, the will of the international community, requires that all member states stand by their obligations, and I think that is a good augury for the discussions which are now about to begin in Vienna at the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency," he said.

Both the British foreign secretary and the U.S. secretary of state expressed disappointment at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's defiant General Assembly speech last Saturday. Secretary Rice said she did not know when Iran might be referred to the Security Council, but added she was certain it would happen.

"I've met with all my counterparts who are engaged in this. I don't think there is any disagreement that there are serious concerns about the Iranian nuclear activities, that those concerns have got to be answered, that Iran must be prevented from gaining the technology and the technological know-how that would potentially lead to a nuclear weapon in a very volatile region," she said.

The sidelines of the General Assembly debate are proving to be fertile ground for diplomatic initiatives.

Israel's Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom met his Tunisian counterpart Monday. The 40-minute talk was part of a series meetings Israeli officials have had at the United Nations during the past week in an effort to improve ties with traditionally hostile neighbors. Tunisia broke off relations with Israel after an outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence five years ago, but Mr. Shalom said he plans to visit Tunis in November.

Monday was the the third day of the U.N.'s annual General Assembly meeting, and among the featured speakers were leaders from developing countries, including Burundi, Madagascar, Lesotho and Haiti. Many said they were encouraged by last week's world summit at which wealthy countries renewed commitments to alleviate poverty.

But there was also a healthy dose of skepticism about the summit in the words of most speakers. Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam perhaps summed up the consensus. He told the assembly "We will now wait in earnest to see concrete results."