|WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN...
|How it would have looked had the hands locked...
|...AND WHAT DID HAPPEN
|...and the actual handshake when Iran’s President
Hassan Rouhani met French President Francois
Hollande (left) at the UN on Tuesday. (AP picture)
United Nations, Sept. 25: The handshake never happened.
While American officials say the near-miss between President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran at the UN General Assembly means little to the ultimate fate of negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear programme, it does illustrate the acute political sensitivities that will affect both leaders as they try to embark on a diplomatic path.
After two days of discussions between American and Iranian officials about a potential meeting of the leaders, a senior administration official said the Iranian delegation indicated it would be “too complicated” for Rouhani and Obama to bump into each other.
“We did not intend to have a formal bilateral meeting and negotiation of any kind,” said a senior US administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. “It was just too difficult for them to move forward with that type of encounter at the presidential level, at this juncture.”
For its part, the White House did nothing to dispel speculation about a meeting. It might well have felt confident, given that Rouhani was granting interviews to American broadcasters, in which he struck a remarkably moderate tone.
On Tuesday morning, the General Assembly was buzzing with rumours of a history-making encounter. Hopes flagged when Rouhani failed to show up for a lunch given by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, which would have provided the best venue for a handshake.
By the time Rouhani took the rostrum at the UN late on Tuesday afternoon, however, it was clear that he felt compelled to undertake a slight course correction.
In a speech that seemed pitched as much to a domestic audience as to a room of world leaders, he unfurled a familiar list of grievances, speaking of the repression of the Palestinian people and “warmongering” forces in the US.
Rouhani’s words were a far cry from the inflammatory rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He did not mention Israel, let alone wipe it out. Nor did he deny the existence of the Holocaust. But his message was clearly aimed at placating hard-line elements in Iran, who analysts say will be quick to undermine Rouhani’s attempt at diplomacy if he is perceived as moving too fast.
A handshake with the President of the US — on the heels of Rouhani’s other conciliatory gestures — might well have been interpreted that way, American officials said. “Every leader has his or her own politics,” the senior official said. “That’s certainly the case with President Rouhani.”
In his speech, the official noted, Obama repeated his vow never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. He also said Americans viewed Iran as a country that declared the US an enemy, and has killed and injured Americans, either directly or through proxies.
There was a sense of history repeating itself at the UN. In September 2000, then President Bill Clinton asked his aides to try to engineer an impromptu encounter with Iran’s then President Mohammad Khatami — like Rouhani, a moderate. After much discussion about logistics, Khatami declined the offer.
A former senior adviser to Clinton, Bruce O. Riedel, said the Americans concluded that Khatami was not willing to take the political risk that would have come from a meeting with the President. Khatami’s political position in Iran was arguably weaker than Rouhani’s today.
White House officials said they were not worried that Rouhani might deliver a less than conciliatory speech after greeting Obama. His indirect criticisms of the US and Israel, they said, were no surprise, and in any event, they said, Obama did not view meeting the heads of even adversarial countries as a concession.
“The very fact that they were unwilling to go forward with it demonstrates that they were the ones who had discomfort with it in terms of dealing with their own complexities back home,” the senior official said.