The Handshake That Wasn't: Obama and Iranian Leader Don't Meet, But Diplomatic Opening Widens

The speculative buzz filled the airwaves of cable news shows yesterday: would President Barack Obama shake hands with the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani? Would history be made at the UN General Assembly? The answer, it turned out, was no, though it was an easy story to hyperventilate about. But that doesn’t mean yesterday was all for naught in the realm of Iranian-U.S. relations.

The handshake would have been historic--the first personal meeting between the American and Iranian heads of state since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew a brutal, U.S.-backed dictator in Iran. U.S. officials told the press that Obama was open to a meeting yesterday, but that the Iranian side wasn’t interested--it was “too complicated” politically for Rouhani, who has to please hardliners at home not too interested in talking to a country that has been hostile to Iran for decades.  Instead of a handshake, though, watchers of the UN were treated to interesting hints of a diplomatic opening between Obama and Rouhani.

President Obama went first, giving a UN speech that focused primarily on the Middle East. He provided hints that America may be interested in direct, serious talks with Iran over its nuclear energy program--the crux of the dispute between the West and Iran. “America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab- Israeli conflict,” Obama said, and went on to acknowledge for the first time ever that the U.S. fomented a coup in the country. Obama also said that “we should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful.”

Iran’s new leader, Hassan Rouhani, has made a point of expressing his willingness to talk with the West, and he spoke on this topic hours later. While it wasn’t as conciliatory as some had hoped, Rouhani did emphasize that if American can “refrain from following the shortsighted interests of warmongers and pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences.”

The obstacles are immense to any agreement. Iranian hardliners will be watching the U.S. closely, and they don’t trust the Obama administration. Hardline Congressional members and pro-Israel groups will also be pressuring Obama to not give an inch to Iran until it capitulates on its nuclear energy program. Yesterday, the Israeli government blasted Rouhani’s speech as nothing more than a ruse. “It was a cynical speech full of hypocrisy,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement.

But there is an opening. And tomorrow, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, perhaps pushing the door to diplomacy open a little further.


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