updated 9/17/2006 10:53:55 PM ET 2006-09-18T02:53:55

World leaders gathering for their annual meeting this week will find a new buzz: The United Nations is back in the global spotlight after securing a cease-fire in Lebanon, trying to revive the Middle East peace process and pressing Sudan to allow U.N. peacekeepers into conflict-wracked Darfur.

Plenty of other hot-button issues are on the agenda as well, including Iran’s nuclear program, the presidential runoff in Congo, reuniting war-divided Ivory Coast and Cyprus, and deciding the future of Kosovo.

After several years of unrelenting attacks on the United Nations — for corruption, mismanagement and inaction — recent events have helped the world body make a comeback.

France’s U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said it’s obvious the United Nations is needed.

“You can do something, but it’s easier to do it through the United Nations,” he said. “Now, the question for the U.N. is, since we have these requests coming, this need, is the United Nations ready, or efficient, or able to answer that? And this is why the (U.N.) reforms are important.”

Unfinished business
When the General Assembly meeting opens Tuesday, the nearly 90 presidents and prime ministers and dozens of foreign ministers expected to attend the session will certainly be focusing on the U.N.’s unfinished reform agenda — including the highly contentious issue of expanding the Security Council, the U.N.’s most powerful body.

At last year’s U.N. summit, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose second five-year term ends on Dec. 31, urged global leaders to respond to mounting criticism and restore the organization’s credibility by adopting broad reforms needed for nations to act together to tackle poverty, terrorism and conflict.

The record 151 world leaders who attended the summit adopted a 35-page document that commits governments to achieving U.N. development goals that include cutting extreme poverty by half by 2015. But it fell far short of the bold changes Annan wanted.

Nonetheless, the past year has seen the creation of a new U.N. Peacebuilding Commission to help move countries from war to peace, a Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission and a new fund to provide emergency humanitarian aid. But members decided to put off many of Annan’s most important management reform proposals, which especially angered the United States, the U.N.’s biggest financier.

Topic A may well be Iran ...
While questions about whether the U.N. is up to dealing with its increasingly important agenda will bubble in the background, the headlines are certain to go to the standoff over Iran’s disputed nuclear program as the U.N. Security Council has demanded that Tehran stop uranium enrichment. Iran’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinajad, is to address the General Assembly on Tuesday, hours after President Bush.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because no decision has been made, said European and Iranian diplomats could meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly in hopes of de-escalating the nuclear standoff.

Annan, who just returned from a two-week trip to the Middle East, said regional leaders were very concerned about Iran and told him: “We cannot afford another crisis in this region.”

“I appeal to the Iranians to really work with the international community and lift the cloud of uncertainty surrounding their program, so hopefully this will be done,” Annan said Wednesday at a news conference.

... or Mideast peace
The Arab League also has asked for a ministerial meeting of the Security Council on Thursday to relaunch the Mideast peace process, but it still isn’t set, primarily because of U.S. concerns about the outcome. Ministers from the Quartet that drafted the stalled road map to Mideast peace — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia — will meet on Wednesday.

“We have to try everything which is in our power to relaunch a peace process in the Middle East,” said Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, whose country holds the Security Council presidency this month.

“We cannot live with the situation in the Middle East any more,” she said in an interview. “War cannot be the answer, and after the Lebanon crisis, if anybody ever had any doubts ... we know now that there cannot be any military answer to these problems.”

Mideast issues are certain to be on Bush’s agenda when he addresses the General Assembly on Tuesday morning.

With the war in Iraq in its fourth year, analysts say the United States will be relying more readily on international institutions including the U.N. and its alliances for help in Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Sudan and other issues.

‘Needed in today's world’
U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari also noted the increasing reliance on the United Nations.

“Multilateralism and the U.N. have taken their hits in the past few years,” he said. “But events of late have shown just how much this kind of organization is needed in today’s world. This General Assembly will certainly underscore that point.”

Gambari said no issue needs more urgent attention than Darfur — and Annan warned that if the 7,000 African Union troops leave and a U.N. force can’t replace them “we are heading for a disaster.”

Behind the scenes, one of the hot topics is certain to be the race to succeed Annan. There are now six candidates and more could emerge.

When a reporter noted that in three months, Annan would be referred to as the former secretary-general, he quipped: “Fortunately!”

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