In his third speech in front of the UN General Assembly since taking office, US President Donald Trump on Tuesday denounced Iran’s “blood lust” and called on other nations to join the United States to pressure Iran after attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Nonetheless, he added that there is a path to peace.
“We want partners, not adversaries,” Trump said in an address to the annual gathering of world leaders in New York. Trump offered a more subdued tone compared to the bombast of his previous speeches to the UN in 2017 and 2018, looking to convey a more reassuring posture as he asks Americans for a second term next year, despite a fresh push for his impeachment among some Democrats.
While offering his habitual defence of national sovereignty, Trump tempered his language towards Iran, stressing the US desire for peaceful relations with all and calling for collective rather than unilateral action. “America knows that while anyone can make war, only the most courageous can choose peace,” he said.
The 14 September attacks in Saudi Arabia have rattled the Middle East and raised concerns about a broader war. Trump has shown restraint in the crisis, at least for now, holding back from military retaliation despite pressure from conservative hawks.
But he promised to keep squeezing Iran’s economy with sanctions until Tehran agrees to give up what Washington says is a pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran has said its nuclear programme has always been for peaceful purposes only.
“All nations have a duty to act. No responsible government should subsidise Iran’s blood lust. As long as Iran’s menacing behaviour continues, sanctions will not be lifted, they will be tightened,” Trump said.
The United States, European powers and Saudi Arabia have blamed Tehran for the oil installations attacks claimed by the Iran-aligned Houthi group in Yemen. Iran has denied any involvement.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said those who doubt Yemen has the military capability for such attack “aren’t saying who the culprit is”.
In his speech, Trump was tough on Iran and its leadership, with Rouhani in New York for UN activities amid speculation about whether they might meet to discuss their differences. Rouhani was at his New York hotel, not in the UN chamber, during Trump’s speech.
Tensions have spiked between long-time foes, Tehran and Washington, since last year when Trump exited the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed sanctions on the Islamic republic that were lifted under the agreement.
In retaliation for the US “maximum pressure” policy, Iran has gradually reduced its commitments to the pact and plans to further breach it if European parties fail to keep their promises to shield Iran’s economy from US penalties.
Iran’s top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last week that Iran could engage in multilateral discussions if the United States returned to the deal and lifted sanctions.
In remarks to media Tuesday, Rouhani said he was open to discuss small changes, additions or amendments to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers if the United States lifted sanctions imposed on the Islamic republic.
French President Emmanuel Macron, trying to create conditions for talks between the United States and Iran, said Tuesday he hoped there could be progress on Iran after he held talks with Rouhani on Monday.
“We have to get back around the table to have a frank and demanding discussion on the nuclear activity, Iran’s regional activities, the ballistic missile programme, but also to have a larger approach on what sanctions are,” Macron told reporters, without elaborating further. “I hope we will be able to make progress in the coming hours.”
Tehran has been widely blamed for the attacks in Saudi Arabia. In a joint statement Monday, France, Germany and Britain backed US claims on Iranian involvement in the unprecedented attacks on Saudi oil installations.
Over the past week, Trump has tightened economic sanctions on Iran and ordered more US troops to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a show of support for those US allies in the tense region.
“After four decades of failure it is time for Iran’s leaders to step forward and to stop threatening other countries and focus on building up their own country,” Trump said. “America is ready to embrace friendship to all who genuinely seek peace and respect,” he said.
Trump also had a stern message for China and its president, Xi Jinping, with whom he is locked in a trade war that is damaging both their economies. He said the world is watching how Beijing handles mass demonstrations in Hong Kong that have raised concerns about a potential Chinese crackdown.
“How China chooses to handle the situation will say a great deal about its role in the world in the future. We are all counting on President Xi as a great leader,” he said.
Trump has sought to pressure China to agree to reduce trade barriers through a policy of increasing tariffs on Chinese products. “Hopefully we can reach an agreement that will be beneficial to both countries. But as I have made clear I will not accept a bad deal for the American people,” Trump said.
Trump’s participation at the UN was overshadowed, however, by increasing calls for his impeachment among Democrats in Congress following allegations that he withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to put pressure on its newly elected president to push forward a corruption case against the son of former US Vice President Joe Biden. The veteran Democrat who served under former US president Barack Obama is believed to be a frontrunner in the upcoming presidential elections next year.
On Tuesday, a senior US senator demanded an investigation of the withholding of nearly $400 million in aid for Ukraine by the Trump administration. Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Congress had not been made aware of any substantive review of security assistance to Ukraine or any policy reason the funds should have been withheld.
In a letter to Mike Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Menendez said “it is becoming clear that” Trump put pressure on Ukrainian officials.
Menendez, in one of three letters sent to administration officials, also said “we must immediately understand whether, and to what extent, the president and his team converted duly-appropriated United States foreign assistance funds for his personal and political benefit, and what role federal agencies may have played in it.”
Arriving at the United Nations, Trump on Tuesday confirmed that he had wanted the money for Ukraine frozen, saying he wanted European countries to provide assistance to Kiev, but changed his mind after “people called me”.
Trump told reporters that he still felt other nations should be paying to help Ukraine. “The money was paid, but very importantly, Germany, France, other countries should put up money,” Trump said.
Trump on Monday had denied trying to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a 25 July phone call to launch a corruption investigation against political rival Biden and Biden’s son in return for the US military aid.
Trump on Tuesday indicated that he expects a “readout” of the phone call with Ukraine’s president to be made public. “And when you see the call, when you see the readout of the call, which I assume you’ll see at some point, you’ll understand. That call was perfect. It couldn’t have been nicer,” Trump told reporters.
Separately on Tuesday, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, was to meet with senior Democrats to consider impeaching Trump. Under the US Constitution, the house has the power to impeach a president for “high crimes and misdemeanours”. The Senate would then hold a trial on whether to remove the president from office.
Pelosi had in the past opposed impeachment efforts but appeared to be moving closer to this position as Democrats demand that the Trump administration release details of a whistleblower complaint and the transcript of his call with Ukraine’s president.
Trump on Tuesday accused Democrats of considering impeachment for purely political reasons. “They have no idea how they stop me. The only way they can try is through impeachment,” Trump said at the United Nations.
In his letter, Menendez noted that the US state and defense departments recommended and prepared to distribute in late June $391.5 million in military and security assistance to boost Ukraine’s armed forces as the country dealt with Russian aggression and sought to improve maritime security in the Black Sea. However, weeks before Trump’s call with Zelenskiy, the White House blocked the aid, Menendez said in the letter to Mulvaney.
“Ukrainian officials were reportedly ‘blindsided,’” Menendez wrote. “For months, despite repeated inquiries from my office and others, administration officials have been unable to offer any policy justification for why these funds were blocked.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Trump: We don’t want adversaries