Efforts by the Trump administration to marshal a muscular international response to Iran’s crackdown on anti-government protesters appeared to backfire Friday, as members of the UN Security Council instead used a special session called by the United States to lecture the US ambassador on the proper purpose of the body and to reaffirm support for the Iran nuclear agreement.
It was an afternoon of high diplomatic theatre that began with a passionate denunciation of Iran’s “oppressive government” by the US ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, and ended with the Iranian ambassador delivering a lengthy history of popular revolt in the United States – from the violent demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 to the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011.
In the interim, council members did, one by one, condemn the Iranian government’s response during more than a week of protests. As of Friday, more than 20 people had been killed and hundreds had been arrested. The authorities have blocked access to social media and have blamed foreign “enemies” for instigating the unrest, a common refrain at times of upheaval that in this case the government has provided no evidence to support.
In her remarks, Haley said the United States would remain steadfastly behind the Iranian protesters.
“Let there be no doubt whatsoever,” she said, “the United States stands unapologetically with those in Iran who seek freedom for themselves.”
But there was evidence of a mini-revolt brewing within the Security Council chamber, not only among traditional adversaries like Russia and China, but also among close allies like France and Sweden. Many seemed to fear that the outspoken criticism by the Americans was simply a pretext to undermine the Iran nuclear deal, which President Donald Trump has long desired to scrap.
It is not precisely clear what Haley hoped to achieve by convening the session Friday, which was not previously scheduled. Until the meeting began at 3 pm, it was not even certain whether Haley would be able to secure the votes needed to call the session to order.
But even before the session began, France’s ambassador, François Delattre, warned against “instrumentalisation” of the protests “from the outside.”
Speaking before the council, he went further.
“We must be wary of any attempt to exploit this crisis for personal ends, which would have a diametrically opposed outcome to that which is wished,” Delattre said.
He asked rhetorically why the Security Council had not taken up the issue of Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which were at times also met with a violent police response.
“The real reason for convening today’s meeting is not an attempt to protect human rights or promote the interests of the Iranian people, but rather as a veiled attempt to use the current moment to continue to undermine” the Iranian deal, Nebenzya said.
Trump has repeatedly excoriated the deal, which was a signature diplomatic achievement of his predecessor, Barack Obama. In October, he refused to recertify the deal, though he left it to Congress to legislate changes to it. (None of the other world powers that signed the deal believes renegotiation is possible.)
This month, Trump will again have to choose whether to continue to waive sanctions, as the deal requires, or chart a more confrontational approach that would further antagonise European allies.
Trump himself conflated the protests with the Iran nuclear deal this week, arguing that financial benefits received by the Iranian authorities as part of the accord had fuelled the corruption that the country’s people were protesting.
At the Security Council on Friday, most members insisted that these two issues were separate.
“It needs to be crystal clear to the international community that the situation in Iran does not belong on the agenda of the Security Council,” said Sacha Sergio Llorenty, the Bolivian ambassador.
Sweden’s representative, Irina Schoulgin Nyoni, concurred: “We have our reservations on the format and timing of this session.”
Such reticence to support the US position is the latest evidence of growing international resistance to the Trump administration’s foreign policy priorities, particularly at the United Nations. Last month, a large majority of UN members voted for a resolution denouncing the United States’ decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US Embassy there.
Haley had to use her veto to block a similar resolution in the Security Council that was supported by every other member.
On Wednesday, the US Mission to the United Nations held a cocktail reception for the nine countries that voted against the resolution in the General Assembly, which, aside from Israel, were Guatemala, Honduras, Togo, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.
In a video message played at the reception, Trump thanked the attendees for “standing with the United States.”
He said the vote would “go down as a very important date,” and their support was “noted and greatly appreciated.”