Next week’s UN General Assembly meetings will offer US President Barack Obama a chance to extend a hand, both literally and figuratively, to new Iranian President Hassan Rowhani.
The White House said on Thursday a meeting was possible, the first between US and Iranian presidents since the 1979 revolution.
“It’s possible, but it has always been possible,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “The extended hand has been there from the moment the president was sworn in.”
It looks more likely to be a handshake and brief exchange of pleasantries rather than a formal meeting where the leaders could talk at greater length. With conciliatory overtures and gestures emanating from Iran’s ruling echelon at a surprising pace in recent days, the White House is looking for the right balance in forming a response. Obama eventually wants to encourage Iran to make concessions in talks over its nuclear program. But if he embraces Tehran too warmly before it takes concrete actions, he would risk criticism that he is fumbling another foreign policy issue after struggling to handle crises over Syria and Egypt.
On Thursday, Rowhani published an opinion piece in the Washington Post urging other leaders “to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue.”
For its part, the White House said this week Obama had written Rowhani to convey the message “that the US is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes.” A US official said the White House hoped to engineer a handshake in the UN building between the two leaders, but by no means a full meeting, and a second official also bet on a handshake, while saying there were currently no such plans. Regardless of whether Obama and Rowhani shake hands, the more serious issue is whether both countries are ready to get into a direct bilateral discussion. The US suspects Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons, something it sees as a threat to Israel and to US allies in the Gulf. Iran denies that, saying its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes. Speeches by Obama and Rowhani, who address the United Nations next Tuesday, will attract scrutiny for signs of a thaw.
Rowhani may extend what many analysts regard as a charm offensive by distancing himself from remarks by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was widely vilified in the West for doubting the Holocaust and questioning Israel’s right to exist.
Obama’s speech must strike a balance, analysts said, between showing a readiness to engage Iran — a message he conveyed in his first week as president in 2009 by saying he would extend a hand if they would “unclench their fist” — and stressing that talks could not be endless and Iran must curb its nuclear program. In so doing, Obama needs to keep the door open to talks while protecting himself from attacks from conservatives who may regard his willingness to talk as weakness, particularly after his recent decision not to bomb Syria.
Elliott Abrams, who served under former Republican President George W. Bush and is now at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said Obama was right to test whether Iran was willing to negotiate but should avoid an encounter with Rowhani himself.
Saying the two are not equals because Rowhani serves under Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Abrams said: “Such a meeting is likely to be read in Tehran as showing how anxious Obama is for a deal. It ought to be avoided.”
Abrams also said Obama had undercut his leverage with Iran by striking a diplomatic deal with Russia to try to eliminate Syrian nuclear weapons rather than launching a military strike that he appeared poised to order in late August.
While there has been speculation of talks between the two presidents or between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif during the UN meetings, current and former US officials said lower-level contact might make more sense. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said a genuine rapprochement between Iran and the United States was unlikely but that an Obama-Rowhani handshake “could open a path toward detente.”
He argued that Rowhani and his foreign minister might succeed in impressing other Western nations with their more conciliatory tone and that could, over time, make it harder for the United States to sustain economic sanctions on Iran.
“I think the double-edged sword Rowhani and Zarif present to the United States and Israel is that Iran is now easier to engage, but more difficult to isolate,” he added.