UNITED NATIONS – US President Donald Trump on Tuesday, September 24, threatened to intensify sanctions on Iran, despite European leaders' hopes for a last-minute breakthrough at the United Nations to reduce tensions.
The leaders of France, Germany and Japan were all meeting separately with Trump and Iran's Hassan Rouhani, fanning speculation that the pair – whose nations have been archenemies for 4 decades – could have a historic encounter in New York.
But in a speech to world leaders full of praise of unilateralism and criticism of China, Trump made clear he would not ease economic pressure on Iran – a condition set by Rouhani for any meeting.
"As long as Iran's menacing behavior continues, sanctions will not be lifted. They will be tightened," Trump told the General Assembly.
Trump denounced Iran for an attack earlier this month on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure – a day after European powers agreed with US findings that Iran was to blame.
"All nations have a duty to act. No responsible government should subsidize Iran's bloodlust," Trump said.
European powers, while criticizing Iran, want to salvage a 2015 accord under which Iran dramatically scaled back its nuclear program in exchange for unmet promises of sanctions relief.
Trump last year pulled out of the agreement and imposed sanctions, sending tensions soaring with Iran which in June also shot down an unmanned US spy drone.
Progress 'in hours'?
French President Emmanuel Macron, who directly pitched an Iran summit to Trump last month, said that the biggest risk was an "uncontrolled escalation" in the Gulf.
He said he had an "extremely direct" 90-minute meeting with Rouhani on Monday evening, September 23, in which he raised the attacks in Saudi Arabia, Iran's arch-rival which is leading a devastating offensive in Yemen.
"We need to get back around the table to have frank and demanding discussions on Iran's nuclear, regional and ballistic activities but also to have a broader approach than sanctions," Macron told reporters.
"I'm hoping that we can make progress in the coming hours," he said.
Despite Trump's harsh words, he is fond of made-for-television surprises and met 3 times with North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un.
Iran in recent days has sounded increasingly open to a meeting after initially ruling out any encounter with Trump.
"We are not closing the door for conversation," Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Monday at the United Nations.
"What we're saying is that you need to establish credibility," he said, warning against simply giving "a photo opportunity" to Trump.
In a possible goodwill gesture, Iran also allowed a British-flagged oil tanker to set sail from its port of Bandar Abbas where it had been held for more than two months.
Trump attacks China
After fiery UN addresses during his first two years in office, Trump came off as dour as he took the rostrum, trudging through a speech that highlighted domestic themes.
He ripped into China, vowing to stand firm in a simmering trade dispute that has led to repeated rounds of tariffs and counter-tariffs. The United States charges that China has rampantly stolen intellectual property and surreptitiously pursued unfair trade practices.
"For years, these abuses were tolerated, ignored, or even encouraged," Trump said.
"But as far as America is concerned, those days are over," he said.
He also said the United States was watching China's handling of Hong Kong, the financial hub where protesters have taken to the streets against attempts to infringe on its special status.
"The world fully expects that the Chinese government will honor its binding treaty...(and) protect Hong Kong's freedom and legal system and democratic ways of life," he said.
Trump – who on Monday snubbed a major summit on climate change called by the United Nations – renewed his attack on international governance.
"The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots," Trump said.
Backing Trump was Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right bugbear of environmentalists who rejected criticism of wildfires that have raged in the Amazon.
"It is a fallacy to say that the Amazon is the heritage of humankind, and a misconception confirmed by scientists to say that our Amazon forests are the lungs of the world," Bolsonaro said.
The Amazon serves as a vast carbon sink, sucking up emissions that have contributed to fast-rising temperatures, but rising deforestation to make way for agriculture risks aggravating climate change.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, opening the summit, renewed his call for more ambitious action to fight climate change.
"What was truly called climate change is now truly a climate crisis, and what was once called global warming has more accurately become global heating," Guterres said. – Rappler.com