Obama and Rouhani: A Handshake that Could Shake the World

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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.

(VIDEO: The Iranian President-Elect: TIME Explains)

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.

(MORE: A Unifying Theme for Obama’s Foreign Policy)

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.

PHOTOS: A Nation Eager to Be Heard: Iran by Newsha Tavakolian

66 comments
HaroldT
HaroldT

Are you all so naïve or plain stupid. Look into Rouhani's past. Does a leopard change its spots?.

alfredopesto
alfredopesto

They are muslim. It is their duty to lie to infidels to advance islam, in this case through atomic weapons. They will talk and talk and stall and shake hands and make proclamations while doing what they were doing, working towards the bomb. Obama is an idiot and they know it, he will eat it up while patting himself on the back and feeling greatly entitled to another round of golf, on us.

AbrahamYeshuratnam
AbrahamYeshuratnam

After Obama's major flop in handling Syrian crisis and allowing Putin to emerge as a world leader, Obama is now giving the stage to Rouhani to eclipse the role of US in Middle Eastern affairs. It is not surprising that Obama will yield to the diplomatic offensive made by Rouhani. Soon after becoming president during his first term, Obama volunteered to talk with Ahmenedijad and invited him for a video conference. Obama's ultimate motive is to weaken Israel and with this purpose Morsi' Muslim Brotherhood government was aided with arms, military training and billions of dollars as aid. Now the offer of Rouhani may also be the outcome of secret negotiations, using Muslim Brotherhood activists in America.  We don't know what all had happened behind the scenes.So this diplomatic trajectory should be viewed with caution because the core interests of America, Saudi Arabia and Israel are at stake.

El_Lashbo
El_Lashbo

LOL Dear Leader wants another useless Nobel 'Peace' Prize.

ahandout
ahandout

Sure a handshake and a "reset" button, that's all it takes.  It worked so well with Russia, right?

No.

Over, and over again, the left in America insists that THEY can bring peace through their idiocy.  If it doesn't work, it's not their fault; it's someone else's fault.  

Let's do it again; this time it will work for sure...

Icansee4miles
Icansee4miles

I have seen Iran's nefarious plans first hand at work in Bahrain; and even the most naive fool has seen what they have done in Syria and Lebanon.  This fawning over a consummate actor like Iran's President happened before with the American President Reagan, and it would be laughable-except for what is at stake; the creation of new Islamic Persian Empire. 


As it was stated by the Grand Ayatollah in Amazon Kindle's new thriller The Bahrain Protocol,  "Continue to ask for negotiations; invite the U.S. and European nations to the talks; sow dissention and split them from each other."  "The bomb is almost ready; negotiations will give us time to complete and test it."   


The clock is ticking.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Wonder what president McCain would do? Oh yes he'd have us invade and occupy the entire Middle East. There's a winning strategy.

NealSears
NealSears

LIKE CHAMBERLAIN AND HITLER?

JohnBrown
JohnBrown

LOL!  Obama, the democrats, and Obama's Poodle media never miss an opportunity to be played by the bad guys.  Of course after his total Syria Fiasco where he started out saying Assad had to go, calling him a mass murderer of little girls, and threatening an military strike only to end up dancing like a Puppet as Russia's master KGB puppet master pulled his strings into guaranteeing Assad, the mass murderer, stays in power.  Now Iran want its turn to play Obama, and play him they will.  The Poodle media is laughable in its attempts to portray Obama as anything but the weak, gullible, political, inept, incompetent, weak, Commander in Chief and failed President that he is.

MorphySmith
MorphySmith

this should go well since BO is nothing but talk and when they break down he will BLAME REPUBS.

just another day at the office for BO, getting played by foreign TERRORIST leaders..

bohonk212
bohonk212

The world keeps selling us their broken down Yugos and Obama keeps buying. "They promise that this one's a cherry!"

JohnClement
JohnClement

Iran is going to play him like the chump that he is and the dinosaur media is going to wet their pants telling everyone what a genius he is and how he saved the world.  I really don't know which is more shameless, the butt-snorkling rump-swabs in the media or the amateurish dolts running the show.

RaviPG
RaviPG

Diplomacy appears to be the only reliable means of achieving a lasting peace in the world. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not only caused extreme human misery but also political instability in these countries. Obama deserves credit for following the path of diplomacy. I wish him every success.

Historybuff
Historybuff

This article is nothing more than "in the tank for obama" propaganda writing.   One would think all the obama propagandizers would have drowned by now.

obama, the great peace-maker, architect of the Middle East renewal, Leader of the Free World... is so desperate as to resort to 'friending' despots.

HB

KeithNYC
KeithNYC

Apparently Obama's anger at Vladimir Putin sparked his willingness to reach out to Iran. According to a report this morning, President Obama was furious after finding out Putin had unfriended him on Facebook. http://goo.gl/hvh4EL

rick.geiger
rick.geiger

It never ceases to amaze me at how naive most of the US media is.   The Iranian goverment has changed nothing.  They are hell bent to get nukes and they will threaten their use and/or give them to Hezbollah.  They hang people for being gay or Christian or Jewish.  They support beating and abusing women and they continue to provide weapons to terrorists killing our soldiers like they did in Iraq.  Yet our child-like media here think that because Iran does a new PR campaign they have changed.  Wow...you cannot make this stuff up

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

Wow. Earth shattering headline. Just like the Nixon Chou en Lai meeting. Turns out now China is ahead America is spiraling down. Naivete thy name is America.

BarryButtBoy
BarryButtBoy

watch barry get beat again..like putin did..he is no match for anyone with out a teleprompter cause he is about as stupid as you can get for a leader.. I listen to his UN speech...yawn.. said the same crap like they were the black causcus..that boy doesn't get it

Zion
Zion

North Korea took Clinton for the same ride. We've been through this story before.

BruceMorganWilliams
BruceMorganWilliams

But wait,  Ricky Santorum, the renowned international scholar and intellectual statesman, says this guy isn't a real president  (You guess which one he's referring to).    Who to believe?!? (sarcasm)

freedomsoda
freedomsoda

If I were Rouhani I would watch my back jUst a few years back Assad was enjoying the good life with the Left - just saying


w4shep
w4shep

Let's hope the president can resist the urge to genuflect when the two meet.

pendragon05
pendragon05

Obama needs to be impeached. Electing a Muslim president is the worst thing Americans have done so far as a nation.

DouglasLevene
DouglasLevene

Why should President Obama meet with Rouhani?  Rouhani is nothing more than a messenger boy.  He takes all his orders from Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, who is the head of state and the leading political and religious power in Iran.  Rouhani doesn't make policy for Iran and he has no authority to negotiate anything.  If President Obama had an ounce of common sense, he would send some deputy assistant secretary of state to collect whatever message Rouhani is carrying.  

ahandout
ahandout

@KeithNYC  That's great.  I can see Obama posting a whole slew of selfies to boost his injured pride. LOL. 

tommyudo
tommyudo

@rick.geiger 


The only one child-like here is you Little Mr. Tough Guy. So, how do you like how one of our client states, Saudi Arabia, treats thiefs and treats their women? Hmmmm.? The US has provided weapons to terrorists for decades. Some people call them "freedom fighters"some call them "terriorists." The world isn't so easily split into "good" guys and "bad" guys, but if the US wants to in the future flex their muscle with Iran I'm sure you will be the first to enlist, or more likely just yell empty slogans on the sidelines proclaming "We're number 1."

anon76
anon76

@ReneDemonteverde 

"ahead" of what?  Ask any American if they'd rather live in China.  Ask any Chinese person if they want the "American Dream".  China is making strides in the international economy- good for them.  They are still in no way "ahead" of America, except in the delusional minds of people who want to think that our current President has somehow destroyed that which a civil war could not.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@PoojaGupta Only a stronger leader like Reagan can enforce a peaceful solution. Not this indecisive, ditherer, spinless, cowardly lying man like Obama. And both sides must be sincere. Not when Iran wants to take advantage of a gullibel country like America, like the way North Korea played with it.


tommyudo
tommyudo

@DouglasLevene 

How naive are you? Every POTUS after Teddy Roosevelt has been an errand boy too. Don't you even have a clue who runs this country?

RaviPG
RaviPG

@DouglasLevene Are you saying that Rouhani should refuse to meet Obama because the House leader Boehner seemingly wields the real power in the U.S.?

jsfox
jsfox

@DouglasLevene Please don't give up your day job and go into foreign policy. You have no future.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@anon76 @ReneDemonteverde When you are up to your eyebrows in debt with another person or country he is already ahead of you. Cause he could pull the rug underneath you anytime he wants.

Diecash1
Diecash1

You mean Reagan, the strong leader that ran from Lebanon in 1983? The wise leader that sold arms to Iran to fund the Contra death squads in Central America? THAT Reagan?

You need to come to gripes with history -- Reagan was a fool that started this country on its downward spiral.

Diecash1
Diecash1

Boehner wields no power, even over his own caucus.

anon76
anon76

@ReneDemonteverde

When another country has invested a huge portion of it's GDP by purchasing your debt, they're not likely to push you too hard towards default.

Diecash1
Diecash1

Yeah, these tools are pretty pathetic with their moronic analysis. Must be McCain supporters. They were probably for a Syrian invasion before they were against it too.

tommyudo
tommyudo

@Diecash1 


Looks like the AIPAC  groupies are out in full force today taking directives from Bibi N.

Diecash1
Diecash1

Boehner has been cut off at the knees. He's the worst and weakest Speaker in decades. He's pathetic. The only way he could wield actual power is if everyone in front of his ascension to the presidency tragically died and he assumed the office.

RaviPG
RaviPG

@Diecash1 Boehner may be only a mouthpiece of his caucus but he does wield real power in the House albeit on their behalf.