Handshake With Iran Might Say Much More

25 September 2013 | 03:51 Code : 1921881 Latest Headlines


It has become the diplomatic big tease of the year, a rumored geopolitical rendezvous that, if not quite as momentous as Nixon and Mao in 1972, would still rank as a landmark encounter for two countries that have been estranged for more than three decades.

So, will President Obama actually shake hands with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran at the United Nations on Tuesday, when both men are scheduled to speak to the General Assembly?

On Monday, the White House insisted again that there was no meeting with Mr. Rouhani on the president’s schedule. But administration officials did nothing to dispel feverish speculation that the two leaders would find a way to bump into each other, whether in a hallway, in an elevator bank or by scraping their chairs together at lunch.

“We are open to engaging with Iran on a variety of levels,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One as Mr. Obama flew to New York. “This is not something we object to in principle. We will do so if we believe it is in our interest.”

By any standard, a meeting of Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani would be a seminal event: Iranian and American leaders have not met since before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Even if it does not happen, officials noted, Secretary of State John Kerry planned to meet Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, here later this week — the highest-level meeting between the countries since May 2007.

If the two sides were to orchestrate a handshake, diplomats said, the most likely venue would be a luncheon Tuesday for heads of state given by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. While any encounter might appear impromptu, Mr. Rhodes made clear that in such matters of high-level schmoozing, spontaneity has its time and place.

“I don’t think anything would happen by happenstance in a relationship, on an issue that’s this important,” he said.

Less predictable is what a not-so-accidental encounter would mean for Iran’s confrontation with the United States and other Western countries over the Iranian nuclear program. Israel and American allies in the Persian Gulf are watching nervously, worried that Mr. Obama will trade their security for an easing of tensions with Tehran.

Analysts and former officials say a face-to-face meeting could be pivotal, opening the door to a direct negotiation between Washington and Tehran that many believe is crucial to breaking the long impasse. But they, too, warn of risks, most notably that a handshake would reward Mr. Rouhani and magnify expectations for diplomacy that may not be warranted, given the fallow history of diplomacy with Iran.

“It will certainly play to the Rouhani charm offensive, making the new Iranian leadership appear more moderate without any overt change in behavior,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former adviser to Mr. Obama on Iran. “At the same time, it makes a bilateral engagement much more likely.”

Mr. Ross drew a distinction between a handshake and photo opportunity, and a working meeting. But he said, “We will still need to manage expectations and Israeli fears that we will end up in a rope-a-dope dialogue while the Iranian nuclear program creates facts on the ground.”

It would not be the first time the Obama administration used an informal meeting to try to open a channel to Iran. In March 2009, the special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke table-hopped at a lunch in The Hague to greet an Iranian deputy foreign minister. The two chatted about Persian architecture, Mr. Holbrooke recalled at the time.

It also would not be the first time an American president had viewed the General Assembly as an auspicious place for breaking the ice with the Iranians. In September 2000, before leaving office, President Bill Clinton instructed his aides to arrange a face-to-face encounter with Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami.

The White House requested that the United Nations schedule Mr. Clinton’s speech so that it fell just before Mr. Khatami’s. At the secretary general’s lunch, the Americans asked to have Mr. Clinton seated not far from Mr. Khatami so that if they pulled back their chairs, they would almost bump into each other, recalled Bruce O. Riedel, then a senior director at the National Security Council who advised Mr. Clinton on Iran.

“Imagine Clinton saying, ‘Oh, Mr. President, so sorry for spilling soup on you; how would you like to make peace with America?’” Mr. Riedel said with a laugh, adding, “We tried very hard to arrange a meeting, but Khatami was unwilling to take the political risk.”

This time, Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani have already exchanged letters, and both have spoken in conciliatory terms about the intentions of the other. Mr. Rouhani, administration officials noted, also appeared to have a broader mandate than his predecessors to make a diplomatic opening.

Mr. Obama has shown willingness, especially early in his presidency, to shake hands with other difficult leaders. He greeted Hugo Chávez of Venezuela warmly at a summit meeting in Trinidad in April 2009 and, somewhat less warmly, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya at a Group of 8 meeting in Italy in July 2009.

If Mr. Clinton’s experience shows one thing, however, it is that Mr. Obama can do only so much to make a connection. “The real issue is not whether the Americans want to meet,” Mr. Riedel said. “The real issue is whether the Iranians want to meet.”

tags: iranian so clinton encounter