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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Leaders Discuss Global Issues

Sep. 29, 2015

Aki Shibuya: The United Nations General Assembly is in full swing. World leaders are meeting in New York to talk about various global issues ranging from development to security. This is the second day of our 4-part series focusing on the 70th anniversary of the UN.

Let’s go to my co-anchor Sho Beppu in New York. Sho?

Beppu:Hi Aki. Diplomacy is in top gear here in New York. Behind me, at the United Nations headquarters, world leaders have started the General Debate at the General Assembly. They're coming up to the podium one after another to outline their foreign policies.

Topping the agenda is the Syrian civil war. This conflict began 4-and-a-half years ago. So far, it has claimed 250,000 lives. There have been several attempts to try to find a peaceful solution through negotiations. But so far, none have made any breakthroughs. In the meantime, the situation on the ground is worsening. The Islamic State militant group is expanding its territories under control.

The Syrian conflict has made refugees of some 4 million people. The recent arrival in Europe of a massive number is adding to a great sense of emergency. Now, the question is whether world leaders who hold different opinions and positions on the issue are ready to reach a compromise. I followed the latest developments.

Leaders of countries whose involvement are affecting the Syrian civil war found themselves under the same roof in the General Assembly hall. But 2 major powers offered starkly different views on how to deal with the government of President Basher al-Assad.

“We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo. Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing and in turn, created the environment for the current strife.”
Barak Obama / US President

"We think it's an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its Armed Forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face.”
Vladimir Putin / Russian President

But Obama hinted at the possibility of compromise.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict.”
Barak Obama / US President

The 2 leaders met face-to-face. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says his country is ready to help bring peace and stability to the region.

"We are prepared to assist in the eradication of terrorism and in paving the way for democracy, and ensuring that arms do not dictate the course of events in the region. As we aided the establishment of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are prepared to help bring about democracy in Syria and also Yemen."
Hassan Rouhani / Iranian President

US Secretary of State John Kerry met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iran is a staunch supporter of Syrian President Assad. Washington blocked Iran's participation in a peace conference last year in Switzerland. But a US government spokesperson said Kerry and Zarif discussed the Syrian crisis during their meeting.


Beppu: Joining me now are Hirohito Nezu of the Washington bureau and Kentaro Shinagawa, the bureau chief of NHK's Tehran bureau. He flew in from Tehran. Welcome both of you. So starting with you, Hirohito, Obama met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Putin’s position is that there’s no other choice but to back Assad and fight the Islamic State militants. But President Obama, although he hinted at compromise, is demanding that Assad resign. So when the 2 leaders met, did they find common ground?

Nezu: It seems they weren't able to make a major breakthrough. Putin is stepping up military aid to Syria. Russia recently sent fighter jets to the country. So President Obama apparently wanted to meet Putin in person to express his concern and to find the reason behind Russia's military aid. So, President Obama will keep trying to see whether Russia can play any constructive role in the Syrian crisis and the struggle against the Islamic State militants.

Beppu: US Secretary of State John Kerry met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. What’s behind this move?

Nezu: Yes, they met on Saturday. It was their first meeting since they signed off on the nuclear deal in July. One thing they discussed was the situation in Syria. I should point out that it's unusual for the US to have announced that it discussed the Syrian issue with Iran. Washington and Tehran currently have no diplomatic relations, so direct talks between the 2 sides have been limited to negotiations concerning Iran's nuclear program.

Beppu: Do you see this as a policy shift?

Nezu: Some people say so. In fact many people in the US are becoming critical of America's position on the Syrian crisis. The Obama administration has set a goal of training 5,000 soldiers by next March to fight Islamic State militants. But that plan has run into trouble. For example, some US-trained units have been defeated by extremist forces other than the Islamic State group. Washington continues to insist that Assad must leave. But at the same time, I think that the US hopes to cooperate with Iran in the fight against Islamic State militants.

Beppu: Kentaro, why do you think Iranian leaders want to, or feel that they need to, talk to the US about the Syrian crisis?

Shinagawa: Syria is the most important issue for Iran right now. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has built a close relationship with Iran since the time of his father, Hafez. Syria supported Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, although most Arab countries supported Iraq back then. Syria is an important transit route for Iran to send supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Shia militant group is fighting Israel. That's why Tehran supports Assad politically and militarily. Iran has even sent senior officers of its elite Revolutionary Guard to Syria as advisors. The Syrian civil war has become increasingly complex. It shows signs of having reached a stalemate. Some Iranian leaders are beginning to worry that the Assad government might not survive. They may reluctantly decide to cooperate with Washington if they see that as a way of supporting Assad.

Beppu: Talking about relations between the US and Iran, some people have been saying that the leaders might meet at the General Assembly. But it didn't happen. Such a meeting would have been an important part of Obama’s legacy.

Nezu: Yes, observers said there was a good chance that the 2 leaders would meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly. But ahead of Obama's visit to New York, a senior White House official said there were no plans for a meeting with Rouhani. He said that's because there's already a direct diplomatic channel between Kerry and Zarif. Another factor is Iran's negative image in the US. Obama likely took into consideration the flak he would get from conservative forces on the domestic political scene in deciding against a meeting with Rouhani.

Beppu: Talking about domestic pressure, I think that President Rouhani himself is not free from domestic pressure either.

Shinagawa: That's right, Sho. Hardline conservatives oppose improved relations with Western countries, especially the US. But after a final agreement on Iran's nuclear development was reached, many Iranians are hoping for better relations with the US, and Rouhani suggested this month that Tehran is ready to talk to the US about the situation in Syria. However, Rouhani told reporters here in New York that it's too early to talk about meeting Obama. He said there was little chance of that happening during his current visit to New York. I should also point out that despite the nuclear deal, economic sanctions against Iran are still in place. Tehran will likely wait to see whether the US will move to end the sanctions before making any move to improve relations. It's important to remember that there's still a lot of distrust in Iran against the US.

Beppu: Thank you, both of you. So as we've been hearing, countries with stakes on the outcome of Syrian crisis are still far apart on how to end it. We can’t expect any immediate breakthrough. But we need to remember that as the situation on the ground deteriorates, the suffering of the people in Syria will only increase.


Now, moving on, we look at what other leaders are doing here in NY. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Russian President Putin and said he hopes to work on peace treaty talks. The talks include the territorial issue involving 4 islands known as the Northern Territories. Russia controls the islands. Japan claims them.

Putin emphasized his desire to develop economic ties.

"Russia and Japan have intensified contact in all fields, including a recent meeting of a bilateral governmental committee on trade and economy. But to our regret, the volume of economic transactions between the 2 countries has declined slightly. I believe we have great potential for economic cooperation."
Vladimir Putin / Russian President

Abe said he was pleased to see Putin again, adding that this was their 11th summit meeting.

"Recently, I was re-elected as Liberal Democratic Party President. This allows me to dedicate myself to peace treaty talks with Vladimir. I will work on developing ties with Russia."
Shinzo Abe / Japanese Prime Minister

Abe also took part in a summit on UN peacekeeping operations. He said new security guidelines enacted by the Diet this month will allow his country to take on a bigger role.

"I have devoted all my energy to creating a new framework that allows Japan to make greater contributions to the peace and stability of the international community. The recent enactment of national security legislation makes it possible for Japan to engage in a wider range of duties and contribute more than ever."
Shinzo Abe / Japanese Prime Minister

Chinese President Xi Jinping was making his first appearance at the General Assembly since taking office. He said all nations must work together to shape the future.

"We should abandon cold war mentality in all its manifestation and foster a new vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security."
Xi Jinping / Chinese President

South Korean President Park Geun-hye expressed concern over Japan’s new security legislation which expands the role of its Self Defense Forces abroad.

"Japan’s recently-passed defense and security legislation should be implemented transparently and in a way that is conducive to friendly relations among regional countries and to peace and stability in the region."
Park Geun-hye/South Korean President