Everything has it’s time and, in the end, the time was not right for a handshake between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama. But, it’s clear, the rhetoric has shifted along with a new Iranian President.
A reformist newspaper, Shargh, published photos on Wednesday of President Obama and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, delivering their speeches at the United Nations, under the headline “Perhaps Another Time.”
The headline reflected a letdown among average Iranians at Mr. Rouhani’s decision to avoid meeting with Mr. Obama at the United Nations. But another paper, Kayhan, which represents the powerful conservative faction in the government, had a very different reaction, expressing horror at the possibility that “the clean hand of our president would for moments be in the bloody clench” of President Obama.
As he maneuvers toward nuclear negotiations he hopes can be completed quickly, Mr. Rouhani walks a razor’s edge at home. He has to navigate between domestic hard-liners who are skeptical of American intentions and sensitive to the slightest sign of Iranian weakness and the hopes of the average citizens who voted him into office and want Iran to end its isolation from the developed world.
Mr. Rouhani’s visit to New York this week, after weeks of conciliatory diplomatic statements, stirred high expectations in the American news media and among the public in Iran. But the excitement, advisers and analysts close to the government in Tehran say, was getting out of hand.
In a way, given the dynamics of Iran’s internal situation, Rouhani’s need to keep the expected distance from Obama is not unsurprising:
Mr. Rouhani, who said Wednesday that he was open to a meeting with Mr. Obama at a later date, canceled because a meeting at this stage — in the absence of a strong gesture of good will from the Americans — would have made him look weak in coming talks and to the hard-liners back home.
“First, we need to gain something from the Americans, before we pose and smile with them,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, an official who is one of the few trusted to interpret the speeches of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Of course, Mr. Rouhani also needed to convince some at home that he is not making any wild moves.”
American officials played down the matter, saying it would have no effect on the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Or, perhaps the Iranian President and his advisors had read this satire news story from humorist Andy Borowitz:
Republican leaders warned the newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that they would frown on his shaking hands with President Obama at the United Nations today, saying that any embrace of Obama would signal that Iran was not serious about abandoning extremism.
“We welcome President Rouhani’s moderate rhetoric,” said Senator Rand Paul (R-Ken.). “But those words are rendered hollow if he is willing to shake the hand of a notorious extremist.”
“This is a man who has enslaved his people, saddling them with a health-care law not of their choosing,” said Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). “The President of Iran should think twice before shaking hands with a man like that.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sounded a warning of his own: “If the President of Iran wants to give the world the impression that he cares about human rights, he should be careful about cozying up to a despot who has continually tried to take away his people’s assault rifles.”
(To repeat the above is a satire)
Some are suggesting Rouhani didn’t meet up with Obama because the only real time would have been when alcohol was being served:
White House officials who tipped reporters to the fact that the two leaders wouldn’t meet Tuesday said only that the Iranian delegation had deemed the orchestrated gesture “too complicated” to pull off.
But academics in Tehran suggest that Rouhani’s delegation did not attend Ban’s luncheon because alcohol was being served, and drinking is eschewed by devout Muslims.
“It is regrettable that President Rouhani did not keep his own promise after raising expectations,” said Hermidas Bavand, an international law professor and former U.N. envoy before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. “If it was due to consideration that alcoholic drink was being served, that was a really bad diplomatic decision.”
Muslims in attendance at events where wine is served, as was the case at Ban’s luncheon, “can ask for nonalcoholic beverages or simply turn their glasses upside down,” Bavand said in an interview with The Times. “I am sorry that Iran missed this historic opportunity between the two presidents.”
Nader Karimi Juni, editor of the reformist Donyay-e-Sanat newspaper, also blamed the failure of the hoped-for handshake to materialize on the Rouhani delegation’s declining Ban’s luncheon invitation.
“Rouhani made his hard-liner friends in Iran happy but did not make a good impression in New York and in the international arena,” the editor complained.
Newspapers aligned with Iran’s conservative religious hierarchy were more pleased with Rouhani’s debut appearance before the world body, praising him for his steadfast defense of Iran’s right to develop nuclear technologies and his criticism of purported U.S. belligerence in the Middle East.
But this could all mean that both countries are on a path towards towards taking relations out of perpetual crisis mode and getting relations on a path towards more normal relations — and that there needs to be time for it to evolve.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.