President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

New York - The verbal sparring between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani became the dominant controversy at the opening of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. 

Trump’s condescending tirade against “little rocket man” that had dominated headlines in 2018 gave way to new invective against another imagined enemy of the day – Iran.

“Iranian leaders are sowing chaos, death and destruction…the world must have a strategy to address the brutal, corrupt dictatorship in Iran,” Trump told world leaders. 

Trump asked members of the UN General Assembly to isolate Iran and “deny them the funds to advance their bloody agenda,” in reference to Iran’s involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Rouhani began his address with a stinging attack on the United States saying, “Rulers think they can secure their interests by riding popular sentiment with their nationalism, racism and xenophobic tendencies, resembling a Nazi disposition.”

He went on to say, “Confronting multilateralism is not a sign of strength but a weakness of intellect, and an inability to understand a complex world.” 

Rouhani characterised the US understanding of international relations as authoritarian, based on ‘might makes right’ leading to bullying and imposition.

The Iranian leader castigated the Trump administration for threatening punishment of those who abided by UN resolution 2231 which had been a unanimous agreement which obligated all countries to support the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action and not to undermine its commitments. Rouhani claimed that the reason the Trump administration does not like the JCPOA is because it was the legacy of his domestic political rivals.

Hours before Trump addressed the UN he had tweeted about Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saying, “I am sure he’s an absolutely lovely man,” and had suggested that he had turned down repeated requests for a meeting with Rouhani. 

Rouhani shot back in an interview with Christiane Amanpour saying, “Iran has never made such a request for a meeting with the President of the United States, but Iran had received from American officials eight requests for meeting with Trump.

“A meeting must take place at a time when the meeting can be beneficial, serve a purpose for both countries. I do not see a meeting as beneficial or appropriate at this time,” Rouhani said.

Trump used his address to the UN General Assembly to equate sovereignty with isolationism, in an outright rejection of globalism.

Encouraging UN member states to “make their countries great again,” Trump repeatedly referred to the need for states to act in their national interests, as he claims the US is doing. 

Harkening back to former President George Bush’s mantra “you are either with us or against us,” Trump took the concept further by announcing that the US is re-evaluating its foreign assistance and in the future will give to those countries “that have US interests at heart – those who are our friends.”

The very notion of a rules-based international system based on multilateralism runs contrary to the vision Trump laid out in his UN address.

The countries Trump singled out as particularly inspiring, those he considers his close allies were India, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Poland. 

Trump’s high praise for his friends was simplistic as he spoke about the success of India in lifting millions out of poverty, of the Saudi King and Crown Prince in implementing bold new reforms, Israel celebrating their 70th anniversary, and Poland safeguarding their sovereignty and independence.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was the subject of high praise. 

Trump thanked Kim and indirectly praised himself for the fact that “North Korean missiles are no longer flying, nuclear testing has stopped, and the remains of our American heroes are coming home.” 

Trump also thanked South Korean leader Moon Jae-In, Japanese President Shinzo Abe, and Chinese President Xi Jinping for their efforts.

But Trump levied stinging criticism at the Chinese leadership, saying that the trade imbalance with China was unacceptable, and that market distortions cannot be tolerated. 

In a veiled attack on China Trump said, “Some have abused our openness and dumped their products, subsidized their goods, and manipulated their currency to have an unfair advantage.

Trump defended America’s renegotiation of what he called “bad trade deals” by referring the US$800 billion a year US trade deficit, and the fact that the US has lost three million manufacturing jobs, and a quarter of their steel jobs. “US wealth has been plundered and transferred,” Trump claimed.

Trump’s elation at the bilateral trade deals recently signed with Mexico and South Korea is a concrete indication of what direction Trump intends to take US trade policy - away from regional trade pacts that he believes are not in the best interests of the US.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the UN General Assembly called on world leaders to resist efforts to undermine the global trading system. 

In reference to the rise in US unilateralism Ramaphosa said, “No country can prosper at the expense of millions of others. We must take collective responsibility for the development of all nations.” 

Ramaphosa’s message in defence of multilateralism is that the United Nations is the most powerful instrument for a more humane and inclusive world.

The other recurring theme in Ramaphosa’s address was that Africa is a continent of young people, with two thirds of Africans not having been born at the time Mandela was released from prison. 

Beyond Africa, Ramaphosa noted that more than half of the global population are under 30, which necessitates that we find ways to skill young people to enter into the new global economy.

Ramaphosa reminded members of the General Assembly of what former President Nelson Mandela had said almost a quarter century ago that, “Millions across the globe are expectant with hope, and look to the UN for a life worth living.” 

Mandela had also said that “Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great.” 

In one of the most memorable messages of the day, Ramaphosa told UN member states and the millions watching the proceedings around the world, “We are not a generation that will stand expectant at the gates of hope.”

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor