World gathers in full at U.N. after turbulent pandemic years

Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t be there. But his invasion of Ukraine is expected to be a center-stage issue when more than 100 world leaders gather this month in New York for the biggest United Nations gathering since COVID-19 swept the globe in early 2020.

It’s just one of a number of hot-button issues likely to get a full airing at the annual U.N. General Assembly in the heart of New York City, as world leaders have a brief time in the global spotlight to make their case, push their pet project or air their pet grievances.

President Biden’s struggle to restore the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran will also be a focal point, with the administration likely to honor U.N. protocols and grant a visa to Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi to speak at the U.N. General Assembly, despite Republican attempts to block Mr. Raisi from attending.

The Chinese government’s genocide against Uyghur Muslims and Beijing’s increasing military aggressiveness toward Taiwan are also expected to face scrutiny at the General Assembly, where a two-day marathon of world leader speeches is slated to run starting Sept. 20.

In all, there are more than 100 heads of state on the provisional list of speakers. Mr. Biden will travel to New York to address the world body on Sept. 20 and his administration’s struggling foreign policy — now nearly two years in the making — will be in the spotlight. Brief meetings with fellow world leaders are also typically part of the tradition for the gathering.

The president is expected to build on a message he offered at the U.N. a year ago, when he announced the “opening of a new era of relentless diplomacy” and vowed his administration would “stand up for our allies and our friends and oppose attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones.”

What remains to be seen is whether or not Mr. Biden will confront the Chinese government directly over its recent expansion of military drills and ballistic missile tests near Taiwan. Last year, he took care to avoid any mention of China by name and stressed that Washington is “not seeking a new Cold War” — an obvious nod to Beijing, which has accused the U.S. of stoking just such a war.

Mr. Biden is, however, likely to directly call out Russia’s 6-month-old invasion of Ukraine, and to claim credit for rallying the world’s major democracies behind Kyiv, which has relied on weaponry from the U.S. and other NATO nations to repel the Russian onslaught and even launch a counterattack in recent weeks.

U.S. U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in a Sept. 8 speech in San Francisco on the future of the U.N., said Russia’s invasion presented a “crisis of confidence” for the gathering General Assembly, not just for a few great powers.

“This is not a new Cold War. This is not about a few countries. This involves all of us,” she said. “This is about defending the U.N. Charter. This is about peace for the next generation. This is about protecting the U.N.’s principles. It is about serving, not dominating, the peoples of the world.”

But Mr. Biden risks being upstaged by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is among the most anticipated General Assembly speakers. The Ukrainian leader, a neophyte politician and former comedic actor, has emerged as a global figure for his leadership in the face of the Russian invasion, declaring that the “world’s future” is being determined on the battlefields of Ukraine.

Mr. Zelenskyy, who has a penchant for channeling emotion in speeches before international leaders, recently warned the U.N. Security Council on the six-month anniversary of the invasion that if Russia isn’t stopped, “then all these Russian murderers will inevitably end up in other countries — Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America.”

All eyes will be watching when Russia attempts to counter that claim in its own General Assembly remarks. While the Kremlin has said Mr. Putin will not attend this year’s gathering, he is expected to be represented by veteran Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who is slated to deliver remarks in New York.

Another confrontational moment is anticipated when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro takes the stage, likely with a repeat of his own claim from last year that his country is the victim of economic “persecution” being inflicted by U.S. sanctions.

Other heads of state now scheduled to speak include King Abdullah II of Jordan and the presidents of France, Colombia, South Korea, South Africa, Egypt. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is also on the list, with plans to appear in New York, even as political tensions spiral ahead of an Oct. 2 election in Brazil, where Mr. Bolsonaro is currently trailing in the polls to former President and leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Recovering from COVID

The in-person speeches are expected to restore the General Assembly back to its pre-COVID status, with delegations from around the world snarling traffic in Midtown Manhattan and clinking glasses at high-end hotel receptions through the week.

In September 2020, the pandemic had kept world leaders from coming to New York for the annual meeting for the first time in the 75-year history of the United Nations. Instead, pre-recorded speeches from leaders were shown in the General Assembly Hall, introduced by a single diplomat from each country.

Last September, the U.N. decided on a hybrid format — allowing world leaders to attend the gathering in person — or deliver pre-recorded speeches if COVID-19 restrictions prevent them from traveling, an option 72 leaders chose.

U.N. officials have said there will be no pre-recorded speeches allowed this year. Despite the continuing pandemic, the Associated Press has reported that more than 80% of leaders of the U.N.’s 193 member nations want to address the annual gathering in person and engage in many off-the-record meetings and conversations where a lot of international business is conducted.

The whirl of the General Assembly always brings drama, surprises and a scramble of back-channel diplomatic meetings. The prospect of the latter appears most likely to occur this year between the Biden administration and Iran, amid deep uncertainty over the status of Mr. Biden’s pursuit of a renewed nuclear deal with the Islamic republic.

Former President Trump pulled the United States out of the deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran’s economy in 2018, claiming Tehran had spoiled the agreement by backing militant groups around the Mideast and by testing ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Following months of on-again, off-again negotiations, the Biden administration and Iranian officials have recently appeared close to a new deal, trading written responses on the finer points of a roadmap for how the U.S. will lift certain Trump-era sanctions in exchange for a new commitment from Iran to restrict its rapidly advancing nuclear program.

But Iranian officials have dragged their feet ahead of the U.N. gathering, with Mr. Raisi warning last week that any roadmap to restore the deal must see international inspectors end their probe on man-made uranium particles found at undeclared sites in the country.

The International Atomic Energy Agency for years has sought for Iran to answer questions about man-made uranium particles found at the suspect sites. U.S. intelligence agencies, Western nations and the IAEA have said Iran ran an organized nuclear weapons program until 2003. Iran has long denied ever seeking nuclear weapons.

Republicans in Washington have sought to prevent the Biden administration from using the U.N. General Assembly as a backdrop to try and clinch the deal, and to block Mr. Raisi from using the event as a forum to attack the United States.

Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Ted Cruz of Texas have called on Mr. Biden to deny visas for Mr. Raisi and his delegation to the gathering in New York.

In a letter to Mr. Biden last month, the lawmakers cited a report that members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has been designed by the Trump administration as a terrorist organization, were actively plotting to assassinate former U.S.  officials.

“Allowing Raisi to travel to the United States — while his agents actively work to assassinate senior American officials on U.S. soil — would gravely endanger our national security, given the likely presence of IRGC agents in the Iranian delegation,” the Republicans wrote.

Days after the letter was publicized, the Justice Department charged an IRGC member with plotting to kill former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton.

The Biden administration has dodged questions about whether Mr. Raisi will be granted a visa, but has signaled the Iranian president will likely receive one.

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters last month that “visa records are confidential under U.S. law, but as host nation of the U.N., the United States is generally obligated under the U.N. Headquarters Agreement to facilitate travel to the headquarters district by representatives of U.N. member states.”

“We take our obligations under these agreements very seriously,” he said.

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