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The United Nations Headquarters is pictured during the U.N. General Assembly in New York September 23, 2013.ERIC THAYER/Reuters

As world leaders gather for their annual meetings in New York, there is something unusual in the air: a chance for diplomacy to make a difference.

Tuesday marks the start of the general debate for the latest session of the United Nations. Just weeks ago, it appeared that the September conclave would follow its usual pattern of speeches, soirées and press conferences with little concrete in the way of progress.

Not anymore.

"The focus is not simply a gabfest among 193 world leaders," said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on multilateral institutions. "Suddenly it appears there might be a chance for a breakthrough on two of the most vexing issues in U.S. foreign policy."

Those two issues are the conflict in Syria and the frosty relationship between Iran and the West. In recent days, there has been a flurry of diplomatic action on both fronts. And that means the stakes are high: this week's meetings at the UN could either advance those initiatives or see them start to disintegrate.


Iran's newly elected President Hasan Rouhani is arriving in New York on the heels of a considerable charm offensive. He has exchanged letters with U.S. President Barack Obama. Last week he penned an opinion piece in The Washington Post wherein he urged world leaders to "make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me."

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani will address the UN General Assembly on Tuesday (the former in the morning, the latter in the afternoon). There is speculation that the two men might arrange to run into one another for a brief but symbolic handshake.

More importantly, later in the week Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is scheduled to sit down with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from five other nations engaged in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. That meeting would constitute the highest-level talks between the U.S. and Iran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

On Monday Iran freed 80 political prisoners, including an Iranian-Canadian man who spent the past four years on death row in Tehran. Hamid Ghassemi-Shall had been held in an Iranian prison since 2008, on charges of espionage.

After suffering through years of crippling sanctions, there is "an unmistakable effort by the entire Iranian leadership to alter the tone – and apparently the substance – of their relationship with the West," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. "We're seeing something quite important; where it will end remains profoundly uncertain."


In a surprise development, the U.S. and Russia struck an agreement earlier this month to get rid of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons by the middle of next year, averting a potential military strike by the U.S.

The next steps are critical and will unfold this week at the UN. The U.S. and its allies are pushing for a Security Council resolution that would institute a process to verify destruction of the weapons and lay out strict consequences for non-cooperation.

The U.S. wants those consequences to come under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows the Security Council to approve the use of military force. "We would argue for the strongest possible enforcement," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, in a conference call on Friday. "We'd like to see a Security Council resolution as soon as possible."

Whether the council can reach an agreement that satisfies the U.S. is yet to be seen. For years, Russia and China stymied efforts by the U.S., Britain and France to push for stronger action on Syria by the Security Council. Now, for perhaps the first time since the lead-up to the Iraq War, the UN's highest body will find itself at the centre of an effort to disarm a member state.

What's more, there's also the "question of how all this high-level diplomacy about chemical weapons related to the broader question of conventional warfare going on there," Mr. Patrick said.