Irrespective of what takes place at the general assembly of the United Nations, the missing handshake between the presidents of Iran and the United States of America will remain the defining moment of the meeting. Surprisingly, the US’s non-combative mood seems to have outlasted the compromise with Russia on Syria. Instead of taking offence at Hassan Rouhani’s diplomatic ducking of the handshake with Barack Obama that was to signal rapprochement between the old enemies, the Americans have stated that they understood how “complicated” the fallout of this handshake could be for Mr Rouhani in Iran. It is unlikely that Mr Rouhani needs their sympathy. The new president of Iran knows that he has a robust public mandate to pursue change in the country’s foreign policy. He also has the backing of the spiritual leadership, which is itself aware of how badly Iran needs to effect diplomatic course correction to pull up its sagging economy. While taking over the presidency in August, and during the run-up to the UN meet, Mr Rouhani had left no one in doubt about his intentions — that he is here to drive change. The polite avoidance of the meeting with Mr Obama was to convey that he intends to drive the change as an occupant of the front seat. This is the least Iran can expect from the successor of the rabble-rousing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose backers continue to be in positions of power. If the US does not mind giving Mr Rouhani his photo-opportunity back in Iran, it is probably because it has realized how crucial Iran is to fixing the political puzzle in the Middle East, and possibly further east in Afghanistan.
This signals American foreign policy’s sudden coming of age. The trigger-happy Republicans may still rue the passing of a golden era of American machismo, but moderation seems to have become the middle name of Mr Obama’s second presidency. It is this mindset that prompted the climbdown over Syria or the decision to play the bystander in the goings-on in Egypt. In pushing Israel and Palestine to the table, in the deal-making over Syria, in holding back on North Korea’s misadventures and in agreeing to talks with the Taliban, the US has made it evident that it is willing to give preference to diplomacy over militarism. That might not silence guns the world over, but for world politics, the pause cannot but be a good thing.