After a year rallying international support against North Korea, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is finding the ability to unite the UN Security Council around U.S. priorities in the Middle East stymied — as they were during the Cold War — by Russia.
Whether Haley is seeking to counter Iran’s support for rebels in Yemen or to sanction Syria for chemical weapons attacks, Moscow keeps blocking U.S. initiatives at the world body while bolstering its alliances with Tehran and Damascus. The struggle to win over Russia on the most intractable U.S. foreign policy priorities outside of North Korea risks increasing conflict and further fracturing international agreements, such as the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.
“If Russia is going to use its veto to block action against Iran’s dangerous and destabilizing conduct, then the United States and our partners will need to take actions against Iran that the Russians cannot block,” Haley said Feb. 26. That followed Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia’s veto of a resolution condemning the Islamic Republic for “non-compliance” with an embargo against sending arms to Yemen.
Haley didn’t give more details on possible U.S. moves, though President Donald Trump has said time is running out for the nuclear agreement if European allies can’t reach a deal to strengthen the accord and address Iran’s ballistic missile program. His threat to quit the agreement by May if changes aren’t made has fueled U.S.-European talks, including a visit this week to Tehran by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
This month, Russia and the U.S. are likely to clash again over Syria as the Security Council debates rival resolutions on responding to the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Al-Assad. The council also will review the mandate of a UN peacekeeping force separating Iranian-backed Hezbollah from Israel in southern Lebanon, with the U.S. pushing for tougher actions against the Shiite militia and Russia resisting.
It wasn’t always this way. When Haley took office, there was speculation that a U.S.-Russian alliance on the Security Council could help achieve breakthroughs on previously intractable issues in light of Trump’s vows to seek better ties with Moscow. But the continuing investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election have stymied Trump’s ambitions to build bridges with President Vladimir Putin, and Haley, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has from the start been more critical of Russia than has Trump.
So while the Cold War is over, it’s increasingly clear that the two countries will cooperate only minimally on issues including sanctions against North Korea and some peacekeeping operations in Africa, said Michael Doyle, a professor at Columbia University and a former UN assistant secretary-general.
“I expect marginal cooperation on issues the powers want to separate from direct competition,” Doyle said.
One focus for Haley since her arrival has been on Iran as a destabilizing force in the Middle East. Yet at every turn, Russia, which has won use of an Iranian airbase for its military operations in Syria, has blocked her efforts. That’s fueled a feud with little sign of easing.
During a session last month devoted to the UN charter, Haley called Russia a destabilizing force in eastern Ukraine. She lumped together Russia’s Putin, Syria’s Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as rulers violating international standards with impunity.
But Haley has faced her greatest challenge on the Middle East.
Take Yemen: A UN panel of experts concluded in January that Iran violated the arms embargo after determining that missiles fired by Houthi rebels at Saudi Arabia last year were made in Iran. Russia’s envoys said they found the report unconvincing and vetoed the resolution.
Haley managed to get a statement of support from ambassadors of the U.K., France and Germany condemning Iran for not complying with the embargo. But that carried far less weight than an official Security Council resolution.
The dispute over Iranian missiles in Yemen was a continuation of the other major conflict in the region — the civil war in Syria, now in its eighth year. It took three days at the end of February for the Security Council to agree on a watered-down resolution demanding a cease-fire in the Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta because of objections by Russia.
On Feb 23, as Russia delayed a vote on the original resolution, Haley tweeted: “Unbelievable that Russia is stalling a vote on a ceasefire allowing humanitarian access in Syria. How many more people will die before the Security Council agrees to take up this vote? Let’s do this tonight.”
The next day, after Russia agreed to a revised resolution that the U.S. considered weaker, Haley said, “Today, Russia has belatedly decided to join the international consensus and accept the need to call for a ceasefire, but only after trying every possible way to avoid it.”
Haley’s setbacks over Syria are similar to those suffered by her predecessor, Samantha Power, who faced obstructionist tactics from the late Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, said Richard Gowan, a UN expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“I don’t think Haley’s tough words do much good, but I equally don’t think Moscow would behave much more reasonably and humanely if the U.S. toned down its rhetoric,” said Gowan. “For Haley, as for Power before her, strong words arguably cover up for a lack of real policy options over Syria.”
The Security Council’s paralysis on Syria — and on Iran, which joins Russia in propping up Assad — is a devastating blow to the 15-member body, said Francois Delattre, France’s UN ambassador.
“Let us beware that the Syrian tragedy does not also become the grave of the United Nations,” Delattre said at an emergency Security Council session on Syria last month. “We owe it to the security of the region and of the world, which we have the collective responsibility to protect.”
The tensions make it unlikely Haley will be able to persuade Russia to join the U.S. on a range of issues before the UN. Created to help foster solutions to grave international crises, analysts say they fear the Security Council is becoming a roadblock instead.
“The only way out is improved U.S.-Russia relations, which doesn’t seem likely,” said Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. “Or action by the U.S., and perhaps its allies, without Security Council approval.”