NEW YORK— One of the great unresolved questions of Barack Obama’s presidency is whether he can peacefully resolve America’s conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. An encounter between Obama and Iran’s new president at the United Nations on Tuesday would be the most important—or at least the most analyzed—handshake since the historic grip between Rabin and Arafat (or, if you prefer, Nixon and Elvis). It would only be a symbolic act, to be sure. But when it comes to international diplomacy, symbolism can go a long way.
“Everyone understands that this week in New York is all about stagecraft and setting the tone for future interactions,” says one administration official.
Obama came to New York on Monday to push agenda items ranging from civil society to Syria’s chemical weapons. But those topics have been overshadowed by possibility—discussed endlessly on Monday here in Manhattan by everyone from diplomats to reporters to senior government officials—of whether he might make the first contact between a U.S. president and an Iranian leader since Iran’s 1979 revolution. On Monday, White House officials would only say that Obama was open to such a meeting, but that none was planned.
The very idea would have been ludicrous as recently as last year’s U.N. confab, when Iran was still led by its last president, the combative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He turned his visits to the U.N.’s annual gatherings in New York as an opportunity for noxious Holocaust denialism and anti-American broadsides that sent western diplomats marching out of his speeches in protest. More importantly, the Iranian regime—whose agenda is set by its Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei—showed little interest in striking a deal with the west over its steady progress towards nuclear weapons capability.
Since Iran’s June presidential election, however, Tehran’s tone has changed. The country’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has not-so-implicitly contrasted himself with Ahmadinejad, and speaks of “a path for negotiations and moderation” that might relieve international sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy. He has tweeted kind words about Jews at a time of fear that Iran’s nuclear program—which its leaders deny is meant for military purposes—poses a mortal threat to Israel. And his government has released dozens of political prisoners in an apparent signal of reform and openness. Even more important, Khamenei, successor to the infamous Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has shown clear support for a new diplomatic push; last week he endorsed “heroic leniency” in Iran’s diplomacy.
“There’s something really interesting going on here,” says Kenneth Pollack of Brookings Institute, a former CIA Middle East analyst and author of a new book on Iran. “We should’t dismiss this as just words.”
Pollack notes that Bill Clinton came close to an encounter with then-Iranian president Mohammed Khatami at the United Nations in 2000. At the time, Khatami was seeking better relations with the west, and Clinton was open to the meeting. Elaborate scheduling changes allowed the two men to wind up in the same room, but an actual encounter never happened—thanks to hardliners in Iran who opposed it. If Rouhani is able to pull off some direct contact with Obama, it would be a sign not only of his own thinking but of the domestic political climate in Iran.
The world may never see it, however. Even if Obama presses the flesh with Rouhani, it could happen out of the view of reporters and photographers, limiting its symbolic impact. Even good intentions could be foiled by the complex logistics of the mass diplomatic gathering. (And a substantive sit-down between the two men appears highly unlikely.)
So the main event may wind up being the speeches that will be delivered by Obama on Tuesday morning and by Rouhani late in the afternoon. Obama officials will parse Rouhani’s address for conciliatory statements—perhaps some equivalent to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 2000 apology to Iran for America’s participation in a 1953 coup there. “Does he go beyond all the statements that he’s made already?” Pollack asks.
Also significant will be a meeting later this week involving foreign ministers involved in international talks with Iran about its nuclear program, which will include Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s new foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Zarif. That encounter is more likely to produce the photo-op that could drive media coverage of a U.S.-Iranian detente.
Ultimately, however, the theatrics in Turtle Bay will only tell us so much. Skeptics like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warn that Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—hoping that soothing words will relieve sanctions and buy more time for his country’s nuclear program. Handshake or no, Iran will soon have to demonstrate that it’s willing to halt, or at least slow down, its nuclear program in return for an easing of international sanctions.
“The acid test remains whether the Iranian government is prepared to take actions that constrain, limit, and roll back its existing nuclear program in a manner that provides confidence it is peaceful nature,” says the Obama official. One fleeting encounter won’t answer that question. But it could be a promising start.