Undoubtedly the UN in the last few weeks has emerged strengthened as an universal security organization by the events in Iran and Syria despite warnings about its imminent demise. But there is nothing new about the UN's emergence as a peacemaker. Like a fire station, it often remains silent for weeks and months until a fire or a crisis erupts but then it suddenly comes to life and acts as the indispensable body to resolving major crises.
Iran should know. For in Iran, the UN has been both a protector of the nation and a cop on the beat to its regime. It was the UN which originally helped to settle the almost decade long war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s that no other organization could bring to an end. But it was also later the UN's agency, the IAEA, that subsequently dispatched inspectors into the country to monitor and eventually demand a halt to Iran's nuclear build-up. Then, of course, the UN Security Council placed sanctions on Iran over its failure to dismantle its nuclear program, bringing together Cold War foes like the US, China and Russia around the plan. And it was the increasingly harsh UN sanctions that, in my view, pushed Iran via President Rouhani to seek talks with the US for a deal. Finally it was the UN's neutral arena in New York City that provided the meeting ground for U.S. and Iranian officials to speak to one another for the first time in 36 years.
Ultimately if a deal is sealed, it will be UN inspectors that will confirm the removal of all suspicious nuclear facilities from Iran. Some may argue that the UN should have acted sooner over Iran, but, as in all long-standing geopolitical disputes, the UN has usually not been able to intervene diplomatically until both parties to a dispute are ready to parlay. But clearly its record on Iran demonstrates the UN's fundamental importance in upholding peaceful international relations. On Syria, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, in my opinion, did not move fast enough on the Syrian conflict in its first year. But by February of 2012, he had appointed Kofi Annan to be his emissary to seek a settlement of the war. Annan developed the outlines of an accord. However Ban was unable to convince Russia and China to act further on Syria in the UN Security Council. Warfare continued. Finally it was only the threat of the use of force by the United States against Syria's illegal use of chemical weapons that precipitated the dramatic -- though narrowly-devised Russian agreement -- on removing Syria's chemical arsenal.
Historically, though, it has been the American threat to use force that has most often compelled the Security Council to act when it might not otherwise do so -- examples: the UN intervention in the 1950 Korean war and the 1991 First Gulf War. (Not always -- witness President George W Bush's failure to obtain the Council's blessing for his invasion of Iraq in 2003.) Since then, the UN Security Council has endorsed the Russian proposal on Syria, and it will be UN inspectors that will locate and remove the chemical weaponry from Syria. The lessons learned are: (1) the UN continues to play a central role in most global disputes because there is no other body that can do so; (2) the US, as the only superpower on the planet, is often critical to making the UN Security Council act in the first place.