VOA Persian’s Katherine Ahn contributed to this report.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday that while the United States does not seek conflict with any other nation, he will not hesitate to defend America’s interests.
“The United States, after having spent $2.5 trillion since my re-election to rebuild our great military, is also by far the world’s most powerful nation,” he told a room full of world leaders. “Hopefully it will never have to use this power.”
Trump stressed that the U.S. does not seek conflict with any country.
“We desire peace, cooperation and mutual gain with all, but I will never fail to defend America’s interests,” he told the United Nations General Assembly.
Trump pointed to Iran as one of the greatest global threats, saying it oppresses its citizens at home while fueling conflicts and terrorism beyond its borders. He said as long as this continues, U.S. sanctions will not be lifted, they will be tightened.
But the U.S. president left open the door to diplomacy, noting that some of America’s past enemies are now its closest friends.
“The United States has never believed in permanent enemies,” he said. “We want partners, not adversaries.”
After the Sept. 14 attacks on two Saudi oil installations, which the U.S. has on blamed Iran, hopes evaporated for a possible encounter between the U.S. and Iranian presidents on the sidelines of the General Assembly. Iran has denied responsibility for the attacks.
While U.S. and Iranian officials have said their leaders are not going to meet, some diplomats are holding out hope there could be an encounter to try to de-escalate tensions.
French President Emmanuel Macron met late Monday with the Iranian president and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel held separate meetings with both Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday.
“I thought President Trump’s line (about the U.S. never believing in permanent enemies) was a message to Iran that the path for dialogue remains open,” said Jason Brodsky, policy director of U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, in a VOA Persian interview.
“But Iran has to walk through that door and it's not going to be able to do that while undertaking attacks like we saw against (installations of Saudi oil company) Aramco earlier this month,” Brodsky added. Iran has denied involvement in those attacks.
Speaking separately to VOA Persian, National Iranian American Council (NIAC) researcher Sina Toossi said the real reason behind recent attacks in the region, such as those in Saudi Arabia, is the Trump administration’s policy of imposing “maximum pressure” on Iran to negotiate a new deal to end what the U.S. sees as malign Iranian behaviors.
“Trump must do away with this maximum pressure policy if he truly wants negotiations and diplomacy with Iran,” said Toossi, whose nonprofit group has been a frequently critic of the Trump administration in its escalating tensions with Tehran. “We see that the greatest victims of ‘maximum pressure’ are the Iranian people … we see that it has not made the Iranian government weaker or changed its regional policies – it just pushes the countries to the verge of war.”
U.S. officials have said “maximum pressure” is working because it has left Iran with fewer funds to disperse to its regional Islamist militant proxies who have been longtime enemies of the U.S. and its allies. They also have said U.S. sanctions have exemptions for humanitarian goods for the Iranian people.
During his U.N. address Tuesday, President Trump also had strong words for China, saying it would not be allowed to “game” the international trade system any longer.
The outcome of his trade war could impact his 2020 re-election hopes and he sought to reassure his domestic audience.
“The American people are absolutely committed to restoring balance to our relationship with China,” he said. “Hopefully we can reach an agreement that will be beneficial for both countries, but as I have made very clear, I will not accept a bad deal for the American people.”
He said Washington is also watching Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, where months of pro-democracy protests have turned violent.
In his own hemisphere, Trump focused on another issue that is important to his political base – the flow of undocumented migrants into the United States.
“Many of the countries here today are coping with the challenges of uncontrolled migration,” Trump said. “Each of you has the absolute right to protect your borders and so of course, does our country.”
He urged Central Americans not to pursue migration north.
“To anyone conducting crossings of our border illegally, please hear these words: Do not pay the smugglers, do not pay the coyotes. Do not put yourself in danger. Do not put your children in danger”, he said. “Because if you make it here, you will not be allowed in. You will be promptly returned home.”
Trump also accused activists and non-governmental organizations both in the U.S. and abroad of fueling the migration crisis under the guise of social justice, saying they fuel the smugglers by encouraging people to keep coming to the U.S.
And he thanked President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico for sending 27,000 troops to his northern border to keep migrants from entering the United States.
“Mexico is showing us great respect and I respect them in return,” Trump said.
The president also sent warnings to leaders in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
“The dictator [Nicolas] Maduro is a Cuban puppet, protected by Cuban body guards, hiding from own people,” he said. “While Cuba plunders Venezuela’s oil wealth to sustain its own corrupt communist rule.”
He said the United States is united behind the Venezuelan people.
President Trump only briefly touched on his diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang, noting that North Korea is a country with full of untapped potential. He did not say when he might meet again with leader Kim Jong Un.
During last year's address, Trump drew laughter when he boasted that his administration "accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country." This year, he drew neither laughs nor applause during his speech. Just very brief applause at the end.
Trump has pulled hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. funding to U.N. peacekeeping, refugee and reproductive health programs since coming to office in January 2017. He has also withdrawn from several multilateral agreements and quit the U.N. human rights council and the U.N.’s Educational and Scientific agency. But he seems to enjoy the annual exercise of addressing world leaders at the General Assembly, where he draws a large and attentive crowd.