UNITED NATIONS/DUBAI/PARIS– The chances of a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani while they are both in New York next week for the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations have dwindled since an attack on Saudi oil facilities.
As the world waits to see what happens next and Washington and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres suggested the UN Security Council has a role to play following Saturday’s attacks, some attention has turned to when and how it could.
“I’m confident that in New York we’ll talk a lot about this and that the Saudis will too,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday when asked if the United States would take the issue to the 15-member body, which is charged with maintaining global peace and security.
He added on Thursday: “We’d like a peaceful resolution, indeed I think we’ve demonstrated that.”
The United States and its ally Saudi Arabia blame Iran for the attack on the world’s biggest crude oil processing facility and have said they will present evidence to back that up. Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group, which has been fighting a Saudi-led military coalition since 2015, has claimed responsibility.
Saudi UN Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi wrote to the Council on Wednesday to formally report the attack and to invite UN experts to “participate in the investigations,” according to a letter seen by Reuters.
“All preliminary signs and indicators reveal that this attack did not emanate from Yemeni lands as claimed by the terrorist Houthi militia, and that the weapons used were Iranian made,” wrote Al-Mouallimi.
UN experts who monitor and report to the Security Council on the implementation of UN sanctions on Iran and Yemen traveled to Riyadh and Guterres warned on Wednesday that a major confrontation in the Gulf would have “devastating consequences” for the region and globally.
“I don’t think there is a more serious threat to peace and security in the world today than what’s happening in the Gulf. This clearly an area where I am absolutely sure the Security Council has a key role to play,” Guterres told reporters.
Asked whether he thought the Security Council should discuss the issue, Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, council president for September, said: “That depends on how things will develop.”
“I don’t know whether it might come up next week or not,” he said. “I do not exclude it.”
An already-tense relationship between Iran and the United States has worsened over the past year since Trump withdrew from a nuclear pact between Iran and world powers, saying it did not go far enough, and reimposed sanctions on Iran as part of a “maximum pressure” policy.
In response, Iran has gradually reduced its commitments to limit uranium enrichment activity under the pact and plans further breaches if European parties fail to keep their promises to shield Iran’s economy from US sanctions.
“This maximum pressure policy was designed to change Iran’s behavior. Just the opposite is happening and Iran will not get down on its knees and implore the US for a better deal. So the choice now is be realistic and get back to a reasonable approach,” said a senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A senior Trump administration official, however, suggested that the tensions were manageable.
“Iran has a long history of testing its strength. But they never climb too high up the escalation ladder. At a certain point, when the world says enough, they come back down,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
An Iranian official close to the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Iranian establishment was united in resisting US pressure.
“Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. They think by sanctions they can back us into a corner. Wishful thinking. As long as they pressure Iran, we will push back. Iran is a big country with lots of resources and can survive without oil money,” said the official.
Some diplomats and analysts said it was difficult to see an immediate path to talks between the United States and Iran.
French President Emmanuel Macron spent the past couple of months trying to defuse tensions with the idea of convincing Iran to return to fully implementing the accord and open a broader negotiation in return for $15 billion dollars credit for the Tehran government.
“The fact is that there are tensions. The fact is that there is a risk of escalation that justifies our diplomatic action. That said, one cannot force people who do not want to negotiate to negotiate,” an aide to Macron told reporters in Paris on Thursday.
A second senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that many in Iran would want to meet with the United States but “it is very hard for them to do without it looking like they are giving in to America” and they would want to have some sense of what would follow.
Last week Trump flirted with the idea of meeting Rouhani during the UN General Assembly and even left open the possibility that the United States could ease sanctions on Iran.
Trump has since backed away from those ideas while Khamenei has said Iran would never hold such one-on-one talks but could engage in multilateral discussions if Washington returns to the 2015 pact.
But Russia’s Nebenzia, while acknowledging the chances of a meeting were very slim, said with a smile: “Maybe that will be the greatest sensation of the forthcoming high-level week, I don’t know.”