09/25/2012 07:22 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Middle East Permeates UN General Assembly Despite 50 Sideshows

The civil war in Syria and its 26,000 dead are dominating this week's U.N. General Assembly session but no solution is expected to emerge. The same goes for the Islamic uprisings against the United States and Iran's nuclear program.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister who has a history of negotiating crises in the Middle East, told reporters prospects for peace between Damascus and the opposition were dim indeed.

Brahimi, the newly appointed U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria, briefed the 15-member Security Council on Monday in private. But diplomats reported he said President Bashar al-Assad had no intention of relinquishing any power or changing the structure of his government and still insisted the opposition was a foreign conspiracy.

"All I can tell you is that the situation is indeed very difficult" Brahimi told reporters after the meeting, accompanied by Germany's ambassador, Dr. Peter Wittig, the current Council president. "There is a stalemate. There is no prospect for today or tomorrow to move forward."

But Brahimi, who took over the post a month ago after Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general quit in frustration, said he had not given up hope.

Paradoxically, now that I found out what is happening in Syria and the region, I think we can find an opening. I don't think that we can go back to the Syria of the past, I told everyone in Damascus and elsewhere that reform is not enough anymore, and there is a need for change.

The Security Council is stalemated, almost as much as during the Cold War and especially after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. If one of the veto-bearing powers is against an action, little can be done. (Russia defending Syria's Assad, the United States on Israel, China on any action in Asia).

Also playing a role against intervention are the rising developing countries like Brazil, India or South Africa. Western military action appears unlikely -- at least until after the U.S. November elections. Yet, if negotiations are ever to begin, only the Brahimi process has international legitimacy.

All the world's a stage
This polarization affects the comments of more than 100 kings, presidents, prime and foreign ministers speaking at the annual parade of dignitaries. They present their country's policies and touch on nearly every issue in the world, a virtual tour d'horizon at the General Assembly this week.

Still, anyone interested in foreign policy needs to hear them -- even the roster of authoritarians, whether from Zimbabwe or Belarus.

President Obama speaks on Tuesday as does France's new president, François Hollande. So do two passionate Latin American women: Presidents Dilma Vana Rousseff of Brazil and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina.

Not to be outdone, Pamela Falk of CBS News was the first to notice that Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney addresses the Clinton Global Initiative shortly before Obama speaks at the United Nations. Coincidence?

The activities don't end there. Many of the 40 agencies and programs of the United Nations stage their own events on the sidelines of the General Assembly. And there are meetings of prime or foreign ministers on Syria, Yemen, Congo and Iran. Among the 50 side events, Michelle Bachelet, head of U.N. Women speaks at many of them.

Iran doesn't disappoint
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never disappoints. At the all day "rule of law" session (that included an address by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder), the Iranian president started to deliver an arguably sophisticated address. But then he could not resist mentioning "Zionists" and occupation. (Iran is the only U.N, member not to utter the word "Israel.")

Before the speech, Ahmadinejad spoke to a group of American editors and reporters, saying that Israel (Zionist entity) has no roots in the Middle East and would be "eliminated."

He dutifully ignored Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's advice after their private meeting. Ban "drew attention to the potentially harmful consequences of inflammatory rhetoric, counter-rhetoric and threats from various countries in the Middle East," his office said in a statement.

Jeffrey Laurenti, a U.N. expert with the Century Fund, noted that Ahmadinejad ends his term next year and perhaps the country's talented diplomats would prevail.

If Iran's electoral machinery still offers even a pale facsimile of democratic choice, we may expect presidential aspirants next year to contest his policies and his legacy. And without the radioactive Ahmadinejad at the forefront, it may yet be possible to find a rapprochement between America and Iran, of the sort that President Obama had vowed to seek nearly four years ago.


And yes, New Yorkers are moaning at horrible traffic jams in Manhattan, which can't be helped. The United States agreed to the New York site and the Rockefeller brothers donated the land to establish the world body after World War II. There were only 50 independent nations then.

Today there are 192 U.N. members providing full employment for diplomats -- and contributing to the city's economy.