Iran has often commanded center stage at the annual UN gathering of world leaders, turning the organization’s headquarters into an arena for arguments over the Persian Gulf’s daily complexities and hostilities.
As Tehran’s leadership prepares to address the UN General Assembly this week, there are fears that a wider conflict, dragging in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States, could erupt after a summer of heightened volatility in the region.
After the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal — and Washington hit Tehran with escalating sanctions —Iran has begun to break some of the limits that were set in return for sanctions relief.
Since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the diplomatic setting has been a primary stage for the airing of Iranian grievances against the West. In turn, the US and Israel have condemned Tehran.
Here’s a look back through the decades at Iran’s presence at the high-profile event.
It wasn’t always the case of venturing into “enemy” territory for Iranian leaders when they visited the UN in New York. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was a key US ally for decades.
In 1949, an elegantly attired shah addressed the General Assembly, receiving a standing ovation. “Speaking on behalf of one of the smaller countries, I make this appeal: Do not fail us. Give us the future, give us the inner assurance of peace.”
Four years later, a CIA-backed coup toppled Iran’s elected prime minister and secured the shah’s absolute monarchical and authoritarian power until his fall in 1979. The coup, which fueled decades of mistrust of the US, was a turning point in relations between the two countries.
In 1987, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then Iran’s president, spoke at the General Assembly on behalf of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the role Khamenei now holds. His speech was markedly different from the shah’s three decades earlier in terms of his appearance and the religious thrust. Said Khamenei:
“I come from Iran, the birthplace of the most famous — and yet the least known — revolution of contemporary history, a revolution based on God’s religion and in line with the path of prophets and great divine reformers, a path that is as long as the entire human history.”
Iran was in the midst of a 1980-1988 war with then US-backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that killed more than one million people on both sides, and saw Saddam use chemical weapons on his neighbor. Khamenei told the leaders: “The superpowers hypocritically call this war meaningless — a war that has been imposed on us. This is while they have always provided military, political and economic support for the invader that started the war.”
The relatively moderate Mohammad Khatami, president of Iran from 1997 to 2005, addressed the General Assembly several times, proposing a “Dialogue Among Civilizations” that the UN adopted in 2001.
It was a response to the “Clash of Civilizations” that had become a common trope to characterize dark years of enmity between Washington and Tehran, in particular, years that had seen the US embassy hostage siege, the downing of an Iranian civilian airliner by the US military with the loss of 290 lives and the Iran-Contra affair.
In his State of the Union address in 2002, months after the Sept. 11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush cast Iran as part of the “axis of evil,” effectively undercutting any hope of engagement.
That era ushered in the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose incendiary statements at the UN would overshadow all else.
In 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he prompted disgusted walkouts from more than 30 countries in the assembly as he questioned whether the attacks were staged. He suggested an inside job, arguing — just a few miles from ground zero —that only an explosion, and not planes, could have brought down the twin towers. He added that the death of Osama Bin Laden was a cover-up.
A group of Associated Press editors invited to interview Ahmadinejad that week asked him why he persisted in pushing this line. Stopping short of saying Washington carried out the explosion, he argued that, as an engineer, he was sure this was the only plausible answer.
The current Iranian leader, Hassan Rouhani, has spoken at the assembly for the last five years. By the time he spoke in 2015, he was bathed in the glow of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal that had been agreed with world powers, including the US, earlier that year.
“I can now proudly announce that today, a new chapter has started in Iran’s relations with the world.”
By 2017, as he addressed the General Assembly again, Iran was contending with a US president who had campaigned on his insistence that the agreement was “the worst deal in history.” Rouhani hit back at Trump, who had used his first UN speech to accuse Iran of exporting violence and destabilizing the region.
Rouhani blasted Trump’s comments as “ignorant, absurd and hateful rhetoric filled with ridiculously baseless allegations.”
Both men will be at the podium again this week before a watching world that wonders if what happens at the United Nations will translate into direct military confrontation half a world away.
Image: FILE – In this Nov. 21, 1949, file photo, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, left, Grover Whalen, representing the Mayor of New York, center, and Hussein Ala, Iranian Ambassador to the US, right, ride through Broadway on their way to an official reception for Pahlavi at City Hall, in New York. It wasn’t always the case of venturing into “enemy” territory for Iranian leaders when they visited the United Nations in New York. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was a key US ally for decades. (AP Photo/File)