The United States will decide the agenda for the Security Council meeting, a centerpiece of the annual United Nations General Assembly, because it holds the council’s rotating chair for the month of September. It will be Trump’s first time brandishing the U.N. gavel at a table of officials representing the world’s most powerful nations.
But focusing the meeting on Iran drew immediate concerns from U.S. allies who believed that the topic would expose sharp disagreements among the United States, France and Britain over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump unilaterally withdrew from in May.
Other U.S. officials also voiced concerns that an article of the U.N. Charter would allow Iran to participate in the meeting because it is a “party to a dispute under consideration,” raising the prospect of an awkward and contentious standoff between Trump and a representative from Iran.
“Trump risked a collision with the U.K. and France over Iran at the U.N.,” said Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University, a global affairs think tank. British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron “would have had no choice but to defend the nuclear deal in the council.”
“I don’t think anyone liked the idea of the president having to sit through stern defenses of the Iran deal from May and Macron. He could have got very tetchy, as he did at NATO and the G-7, or walked out of the council causing a diplomatic fuss,” Gowan added.
Instead of leading a meeting on Iran, Trump will chair a debate on nonproliferation, constitutionalism and sovereignty, said the diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss plans.
The broad topic, which does not explicitly single out any country, does not require an invitation to be extended to Iran and reduces the likelihood of public disunity among Western democracies.
Officials at the White House and the U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment on why the topic of the meeting is different from the Iran-centered one unveiled by Haley on Sept. 4.
At the time, Haley acknowledged that Iran would make for an “uncomfortable” topic for some Security Council members but said that “I personally think that when we talk about things that are uncomfortable in the Security Council, good things happen.”
“President Trump is very adamant that we have to start making sure that Iran is falling in line with international order,” Haley said.
Haley’s remarks did not exist in isolation. U.S. diplomats privately told several foreign countries this month that Trump would chair an Iran-focused meeting at the Security Council, diplomats said.
Then, on Sept. 7, the U.S. mission to the United Nations issued a statement saying the meeting would focus on a “broader range of issues,” including the “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” in addition to Iran’s destabilizing activities. Last week, U.S. officials began confirming with foreign partners that Iran would not be the topic of the meeting.
A spokesperson for the U.S. mission downplayed the changes to the meeting, saying “the United States did not change the topic of the meeting, the topic expanded.” The expansion to a broader set of issues, however, relieves the council from having to invite Iran, considerably changing the dynamics of the meeting.
In addition to the concerns of U.S. allies, Russia also objected to a Security Council meeting that singled out one nation.
In his debut address at the General Assembly last year, Trump emphasized the importance of the sovereignty of individual nations as opposed to multilateral approaches to global problem-solving. He also referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy” his country.
The president’s penchant for bold and improvised remarks has captured the focus and anxieties of nations preparing for this month’s global summit in New York. But despite the lofty optics, the United States will be hard-pressed to make any meaningful accomplishments as rivals China and Russia maintain veto power over any resolutions.
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said both Iran and the United States will benefit from a Security Council meeting that isn’t explicitly focused on Iran.
“In sparing Trump this awkward scene, his advisers also gave a reprieve to the Iranians, whose leadership faced an unpalatable choice between the domestic political indignities entailed in sending the foreign minister or another official to try to rebut its vilification and the nearly equally unpleasant fallout that would have been incurred by letting the insults go unrebutted,” she said.
By the end of next week, more than 140 world leaders are expected to deliver addresses at the annual General Assembly. The Trump administration is expected to take a hard line on China, which it accuses of promoting unfair trade practices and exploiting smaller countries across Asia.