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Diplomacy inbox fills up as U.N. awaits U.S. presidential vote

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - As the United States prepares for a presidential election next month, thorny diplomatic issues like an arms trade treaty, the Palestinians' U.N. aspirations and talks on banning weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East have had to wait.

For months, U.N. officials and diplomats have complained privately that discussions at the United Nations aimed at resolving a range of problems have been delayed until after the November 6 election in which President Barack Obama, a Democrat, faces off against Republican contender Mitt Romney.

Some analysts and political pundits suggest U.S. hegemony is waning. But the decision by U.N. member states to put important negotiations on hold shows the power and influence of the United States at the United Nations. Such deference to a national election is unusual.

The stalemate at the U.N. Security Council over the conflict in Syria has not featured prominently in the U.S. campaign, but might emerge as an issue in the final Obama-Romney debate on October 22, which will focus on foreign policy.

Some analysts and diplomats say Obama's caution on Syria is partly driven by election concerns, but others say Washington has abandoned the U.N. track because of Damascus ally Russia's repeated vetoes of U.S. initiatives before the council.

A perennial touchy issue in U.S. politics is gun control, a topic that came up in Tuesday's presidential debate. U.N. delegates and gun control activists said talks on a global treaty to regulate the $60 billion arms trade collapsed because the Obama administration feared a political attack from Romney if it supported the pact.

The treaty negotiations at U.N. headquarters broke off without any agreement in July after the United States, Russia and a few other major arms producers, said it had problems with the draft treaty and asked for more time.

Washington wanted to "bump (the issue) down the road until after the election," in the words of a European diplomat.

David Bosco of American University in Washington said: "The administration clearly feared that the treaty would become a major election issue for gun rights organizations and, with a few other countries, worked to ensure that it would not move anywhere until after the election."

Frank Jannuzi of Amnesty International echoed Bosco's views.

Gun control is controversial in the United States, where the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. The powerful National Rifle Association strongly opposes the arms trade treaty and has endorsed Romney. Arms control advocates say they hope Obama will eventually back the treaty if he is re-elected.

The United States denies that it wanted to delay the arms treaty negotiations, insisting it had genuine problems with the draft treaty under discussion.

"While we sought to conclude ... negotiations with a treaty, more time is a reasonable request for such a complex and critical issue," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the time.

Despite their obvious frustration, delegations accepted the hold-up and treaty talks are expected to resume in March. They have no choice but to acquiesce, envoys say, since a treaty without the support of the world's top arms producer would not carry much weight.

PALESTINIANS LOOK FOR U.N. UPGRADE

The United States did not have to tell the Palestinians to postpone their plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly to vote on upgraded U.N. observer status for the Palestinian Authority, which Washington opposes.

The Palestinians made that decision on their own, U.N. envoys said, because they did not want their desire to achieve implicit U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood to play into the U.S. presidential campaign, forcing Obama to take a harsher stance against the Palestinians than he might otherwise take.

The president of the General Assembly, Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, said this month that the Palestinian push to become a "non-member state" like the Vatican would be debated by the 193-nation assembly in mid-November. He said the timing was due to "electoral and political calendars.

Having failed last year to win recognition of full statehood at the United Nations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would seek a less-ambitious U.N. status upgrade that implicitly recognizes Palestinian statehood.

The Obama administration has made clear it does not want the Palestinians to pursue a U.N. upgrade at all. The United States and Israel also have suggested that funding for the Palestinian Authority and the U.N. could suffer.

If the Palestinians decide to put the issue to a vote, U.N. diplomats predict they will succeed with a strong majority.

There are other issues that are on hold, diplomats say. One is a planned conference on ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, an idea that Israel is resisting due to fears that it will become a forum for bashing the Jewish state.

Israel neither denies or confirms having atomic weapons, but is widely believed to have the region's only nuclear arsenal.

The conference was due to take place this year. But diplomats said it was delayed until after the U.S. vote, partly to see whether the United States would remain committed to the idea.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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