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Obama to address UN in wake of mounting tensions

Published: September 25, 2012 | 8:56 am
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US president to discuss Iran, Syria and Muslim world in United Nations speech; Clinton meets Morsy on security issues, aid.

US President Barack Obama will step onto the world stage on Tuesday just long enough to address simmering crises centered on Iran, Syria and the broader Muslim world – and he will then jump quickly back on the campaign trail.

Obama’s UN visit also comes at a time of mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

He has refused demands from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to set an explicit “red line” for Tehran. Signaling that a rift remains between the two close allies, Obama said in a interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” program that he would ignore “noise that’s out there” and make decisions based on US interests.

Underscoring the depth of the problem, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in New York on Monday that Israel has no roots in the Middle East and would be “eliminated,” ignoring a UN warning to avoid his usual incendiary rhetoric ahead of the annual General Assembly session.

The White House quickly dismissed the comments by Ahmadinejad, who will address the assembly on Wednesday, as “disgusting, offensive and outrageous.” Obama will use his speech to renew a warning that Iran will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, and his words will be scrutinized to see how far he goes in sharpening his tone.

Netanyahu has shown growing impatience over Obama’s entreaties to hold off on attacking Iran’s nuclear sites to give sanctions and diplomacy more time to work. Iran denies seeking a nuclear bomb.

Obama will also take Syrian President Bashar Assad to task for efforts to crush an 18-month uprising and reflect on a recent eruption of violent anti-American protests in Muslim countries, aides say.

But he is not expected to offer any new solutions to problems that have cast a cloud over this week’s high-level gathering at the UN General Assembly and now threaten to chip away at a foreign policy record his aides hoped would be immune to Republican attack.

With campaign pressures building in a close race, Obama’s final turn on the world stage before facing voters has left little doubt about his immediate priorities.

Obama planned to be in and out of New York in 24 hours, one of the briefest presidential visits to the annual UN session in recent memory, and he will be off to the election battleground state of Ohio on Wednesday.

Obama will take the UN podium after a wave of Muslim anger over an anti-Islam movie swept the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, and an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, claimed the lives of the ambassador and three other Americans.

This has confronted Obama with the worst setback yet in his efforts to keep the Arab Spring revolutions from turning sharply against the United States – and has underscored that he has few good options to prevent it.

Obama, in his speech, will face the delicate task of articulating US distaste for insults to any religion while at the same time insisting there is no excuse for a violent reaction – a distinction rejected by many devout Muslims.

“It’s a real moment for the United States to assert its values and its leadership role,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reassured Egypt’s new Islamist president on Monday that the United States would forge ahead with plans to expand economic assistance despite anti-American protests that cast new shadows over US engagement with the region.

Clinton met Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy in New York, where both are attending this week’s UN General Assembly meeting, and reinforced the Obama administration’s continued commitment to provide both military and economic aid for Cairo, a senior State Department official said.

Clinton and Morsy also discussed security issues including a rising militant threat in the Sinai Peninsula, a region critical to relations with neighboring Israel.

The US official said Clinton and Morsy touched on the issue of Iran but indicated the United States would be slow to support Morsy’s proposal that Iran, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia form a new group to try to find a solution to the violence in Syria.

“The Egyptians themselves would say that it’s a new initiative and no one is sure whether it is going to head toward an end point or not,” the official said. “We always have concerns when Iran is engaged.”

Obama’s rival in the US presidential race, Republican Mitt Romney, called for a tougher line with Egypt after protesters scaled the Cairo compound wall and tore down the US flag in one of series of protests that also saw the US consulate attacked in the Libyan city of Benghazi, killing the US ambassador and three other Americans.

Obama created doubts this month when he told a Spanish-language television network that the United States considered the new Islamist government neither an ally nor an enemy.

The US official said Clinton’s meeting with the Egyptian leader was relaxed and warm and waved away suggestions that the president’s “ally” comment reflected broader uncertainty in the relationship.

“We’ve moved past that,” the official said.

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