In her first session holding the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley tried to turn the spotlight from Israel to Iran, the latest target of the Trump administration's tough talk. It wasn't easy.
"If we are speaking honestly about conflict in the Middle East, we need to start with the chief culprit, Iran, and its partner militia, Hezbollah," Haley told the Security Council Thursday. "For decades they have conducted terrorist acts across the region."
For the past two weeks, Haley had encouraged nations attending the quarterly open meeting on "the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question" to tackle Tehran's role in Yemen and Syria and its support for Hezbollah, topics she sees as more central to the theme of Middle East peace.
Few nations appeared to go along with Haley's attempt to shift the discussion. In the early hours of the debate, Iran was seldom raised.
We need "to achieve justice based on the two-state solution in accordance with Security Council resolutions," said Egypt's Ambassador Amr Abdellatif Aboulatta, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The current situation has become a "regressive status quo," he added.
The envoy from Bolivia -- which has a rotating position on the Security Council -- said without naming the U.S. that unrest in the Middle East stemmed in part from policies of "regime change" and "preemptive war" by global powers. He, too, then turned to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Haley's effort comes in a week in which the Trump administration has aimed sharp criticism at Iran, after earlier warnings to Syria and North Korea. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tore into the Islamic Republic's 2015 agreement with world powers that curbed its nuclear program, saying it only delayed the day when Iran will get a nuclear weapon and "completely ignored" the Islamic Republic's other actions.
Iran joined the U.S. and five other world powers in signing the 2015 deal, and Tillerson acknowledged in a message to Congress April 18 that Iran has delivered so far on its end of the deal. Nonetheless, he said, the U.S. will review whether to reimpose economic sanctions that were eased under the accord.
The Security Council has kept an often critical focus on Israel for years, and Arab nations -- including U.S. allies in the region -- resisted shifting that emphasis. Israel's settlement policies were roundly criticized at the Security Council.
The council has been receiving monthly reports highlighting the "Palestinian question" since 2000 and holding a debate on the topic each quarter since 2010. Plus, quarterly reports on Israel's expansion of housing settlements are now required under a resolution critical of the U.S. ally. Former President Barack Obama allowed the council to pass that measure in the closing weeks of his administration by having the U.S. abstain rather than exercise its veto power.
Nickolay Mladenov of Bulgaria, the U.N.'s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, touched on conflicts and instability in Syria and Lebanon but focused primarily on the Israel-Palestine conflict in his report to the council. He urged that Israel's settlement construction, which is illegal under international law, be halted.
"The question of Palestine remains a potent symbol and rallying cry that is easily misappropriated and exploited by extremist groups," Mladenov said. "Ending the occupation and realizing a two-state solution will not solve all the region's problems, but as long as the conflict persists, it will continue to feed them."
While Haley, 45, echoed Tillerson in hinting at a tougher line on Iran regardless of whether the country is complying with the nuclear accord, questions about the broader U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic remain.
"The Trump administration needs a grand plan on how to curb Iran's influence, and right now I don't see a plan," said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
If the U.S. decided to breach the nuclear accord, it would come in conflict with global powers, including European allies, China and Russia, that continue to support it. Iran's ballistic missile tests were a violation of Security Council resolutions, Haley told the Council, a view which isn't uniformly shared.
The 2015 Iran deal also angered traditional U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, which says it's battling Iranian proxies in a war in neighboring Yemen. Iranian troops and Hezbollah allies also have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime Trump targeted with cruise missiles this month following a chemical attack.
The U.S. seeks "to portray Iran as a criminal enterprise, not just as another bad country but as a rogue state that is engaged in horrible crimes across the region," said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute in Washington. "We are moving from a position of accommodation to one of confrontation across multiple fronts."
Defense Secretary James Mattis, on a tour of the Middle East, said Wednesday in Riyadh that the U.S. will "reinforce Saudi Arabia's resistance to Iran's mischief and make you more effective with your military."
But even with Haley's leadership role this month, Tehran's alliance with Russia, which holds veto power in the Security Council, means any resolution condemning Iran's regional influence is unlikely to pass.
"Building a broad consensus is tough," Maloney said.