UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK — As opening speeches at U.N.’s General Debate on Tuesday highlighted the need for multilateral responses to global issues such as migration and climate change, President Donald Trump was not even in the room.
Although the words might have been intended for him — the United States has refused to sign the U.N. compact on migration and pulled out the Paris Climate Agreement — Trump was late to arrive to the United Nations.
When he did arrive, his speech could only be described as an attack on the United Nations and multilateralism in general.
Trump said he rejected the “ideology of globalism” and slammed the trade deals he has been tearing apart, the Iran nuclear deal, NATO, the International Criminal Court, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and humanitarian aid to countries that don’t serve U.S. purposes.
“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination,” he said.
Trump began by claiming his administration had achieved more than any other that came before it, encouraging the room to laugh at that comment, and it did. He then went on to praised his own decisions as steps that would enhance peace in the region, from moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem to pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).
At last year’s General Assembly, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea as tensions built over Pyongyang’s ballistic and nuclear missiles. Since then, he has warmed to North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-un, but has waged a campaign of isolation on the Middle East, cutting funding to Palestinian refugees, backing away from funds earmarked for rebuilding Syria, and doubled down on his acrimony for Iran.
Speaking in an almost drowsy voice on Tuesday, the president reserved a good portion of his speech on Iran.
“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction.” He accused Iran of spreading mayhem there and beyond, of its leaders being corrupt. “Not good,” he added.
He also accused Iran of increasing military spending by 40 percent since the nuclear deal — an exaggerated claim he has made before — and of building “nuclear-capable missiles.”
Just a few hours later, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani gave a full-throated response to Trump, without ever naming him directly.
Rouhani said tearing down multilateral agreements is “a symptom of a weakness of intellect” and lamented the “Nazi disposition” where “might makes right.”
Pivoting to the nuclear deal, Rouhani said the United States “has been wrong from the beginning” on its policies on Iran, calling the sanctions on Iran “economic terrorism.”
“No state and nation can be brought to the negotiation table by force and if so what follows is the accumulation of the grapes of wrath… to be reaped later by the oppressors,” he said, adding that dialogue does not require a “photo opportunity” — a dig at Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Saying he was “starting the dialogue right here,” Rouhani added: “We invite you to come back to the negotiating table you left… We invite you to remain in international institutions.”
The Iranian position is, he said, “no war, no sanctions, no threats, no bullies.”
Fact-checking Trump’s claims on Iran
President Trump has a history of mischaracterizing Iran’s military spending, exaggerating the increase in spending without giving any context for how it fits into overall increases in government spending.
ThinkProgress checked with nonproliferation experts who have also closely watch Iran’s weapons capabilities for some clarity.
Thomas Countryman, chair of the board for the Arms Control Association who also served as Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation from 2011 until 2017, also pushed back on Trump’s claims about Iran’s missiles.
“Iran showed some restraint in the testing of ballistic missiles after signature of the [nuclear deal], even expressing a pledge not to build missiles of range greater than 2000 km [1242 miles],” he told ThinkProgress.
So, in other words, no intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
He added that since the United States violated the nuclear deal and Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal, that Iran might well respond by testing ICBM-range missiles, which are commonly assumed to be intended to deliver nuclear weapons.
But Countryman cautions that bomber aircrafts and even shorter range missiles can also be considered “nuclear-capable weapons” and that until an ICBM has a nuclear weapon on it, it is not a nuclear-capable missile.
“In fact, Iran does not have a ‘Nuclear weapons program’, contrary to the repeated false statements by Ambassador [Nikki] Haley and other officials.” he added.
During his campaign and throughout his presidency, Trump has accused Iran of supporting terrorism throughout the region in its support of Hezbollah and its role in backing the regime of President Bashar al Assad in Syria. He has also accused Iran of violating the “spirit” of the nuclear deal in an effort to pressure and isolate Iran.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association who was in New York to observe the U.N. high-level talks, said that President Trump’s tactics on Iran are “backfiring.”
“Trump’s decision to violate the [nuclear deal], which has worked to constrain Iran’s nuclear weapons potential has isolated Washington…[and] hardened Tehran’s resolve to resist the U.S. pressure and have reduced the chance Iran will engage in negotiations with Washington on a ‘new’ deal,” said Kimball.
He called Trump’s nonproliferation and risk-reduction policies “a dangerous mess.”
While President Trump didn’t use words such as “surrender” or “regime change” in his speech, he also made no mention of dialogue with Iran.
“Compare that fact to how many times — before Singapore — Trump referred to his willingness to meet Kim,” said Countryman.
Is the U.S. actually giving any way out of these sanctions short of total submission?
“So, short answer: If there is a real avenue of negotiation, the U.S. has never described it,” he added.