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Obama Demands Syria Action, Diplomacy With Iran

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, Sept. 24, 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, Sept. 24, 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama has urged world leaders to enforce strong consequences for Syria if it fails to follow through with commitments to turn all chemical weapons over to international control. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, he also held out a hand to Iran.

Syria was the first major topic in a 45-minute speech outlining stakes for the United States, and the world body, across the broader Middle East and North Africa.

Saying "convulsions" in the region have "laid bare deep divisions in societies," Obama said popular movements for change have "too often been answered by violence," with sectarian conflict re-emerging.

Obama pointed to "overwhelming" evidence Syria's government was responsible for the August 21 chemical weapons attack. To suggest otherwise, he said, is an "insult to human reason".

U.N. credibility

The president said the credibility of the United Nations is at stake in how the Security Council deals with the Syrian crisis.

“Now, there must be a strong Security Council resolution to verity that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments, and there must be consequences if it fails to do so. If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing even the most basic of international laws," said the president.

Obama said the U.S. is committed to working "a political track" to end Syria's civil war. He criticized Russia and Iran for insisting on President Bashar al-Assad's "continued rule."

Noting criticisms of the United States, Obama outlined U.S. policy during the remainder of his presidency.

The U.S., he said, will use all elements of its power, including military force, to secure its interests, to confront aggression against allies and partners, to ensure the free flow of energy, and to dismantle terrorist networks.

Obama also addressed recent conciliatory signs that Iran wants to do more to address international concerns about its nuclear program

Despite deep suspicions between the U.S. and Iran, Obama said statements by both governments should offer hope for progress. However, he added, words must be translated into action.

"These statements made by our respective governments should offer the basis for a meaningful agreement. We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful," said Obama. "But to succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable."

Obama said sanctions arose from Iranian government choices, adding that the world has "seen Iran evade its responsibilities in the past." But he said he is committed to seeing diplomacy play out.

"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe that the diplomatic path must be tested. For while the status quo will only deepen Iran’s isolation, Iran’s genuine commitment to go down a different path will be good for the region and the world," he said.

Meeting with Iran

Iran, which denies its nuclear program is designed to develop nuclear weapons, is taking part in a meeting here in New York on Thursday of foreign ministers from the P5+1 group of nations.

Obama also spoke about what he called "significant political risks" taken by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in holding direct talks on so-called "final status" issues.

If there is to be peace and stability in the Middle East, the president said, friends of both Israel and the Palestinians must now be willing to to take risks as well.

"Friends of Israel, including the United States, must recognize that Israel’s security as a Jewish and democratic state depends upon the realization of a Palestinian state. And we should say so clearly. Arab states, and those who have supported the Palestinians, must recognize that stability will only be served through a two-state solution and a secure Israel," he said.

Obama addressed the situation in Egypt, where the military ousted democratically-elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

Noting that the U.S. was criticized by all sides, he said Washington's approach reflects a larger point about U.S. support for basic principles and ideals.

"The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," he said.

Obama said though U.S. leaders may at times be accused of hypocrisy and inconsistency, the United States intends to be engaged in the region "for the long haul."

The president also issued a challenge to world leaders over what he called tough choices they face in responding to violence against civilians, citing among other things U.S. assistance in Mali, and in Central Africa against the Lord's Resistance Army.

There will be times, he said, when the international community will be called to act. This requires new thinking, the president said, because the U.S. cannot bear the burden alone of responding to mass atrocities and protecting human rights.

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