Word on the street is that the White House is trying to decide whether or not to arrange a brief meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of this week’s annual parade of world leaders at the UN General Assembly. Such a tête-à-tête is common at large international gatherings, but not when the two countries in question are Iran and the United States. When it comes to this bilateral relationship, a simple handshake would be enough to grab headlines around the world.
American politicians have avoided shaking hands with their Iranian counterparts since 1979, not out of some odd “germophobic” impulse, but due to the official severing of diplomatic relations. This break technically occurred in 1980, although the situation had taken an immediate turn for the worse with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. In the more than thirty years since that point, politicians in both countries have come and gone, but none have been able to satisfy the demands of the other side, and the icy relations have continued.
Perhaps the closest that these two countries came to a breakthrough was during the time of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who was in office from 1997-2005. Although he was not a liberal in the Western sense, Khatami was a reformist who made some efforts to craft a more conciliatory foreign policy. An attempt was apparently made in 2003 to open bilateral discussions with the United States on issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, although it did not end up succeeding.
Ironically, the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq actually helped Iran significantly by removing two neighboring regimes that were enemies: the Taliban and the Baathist government of Sadaam Hussein. Even so, the U.S. and NATO-led invasions were no source of comfort for Tehran, as they resulted in a significant Western military presence to both the east and west. In addition, U.S. President George W. Bush famously included Iran in an “Axis of Evil” during his 2002 State of the Union speech, which couldn’t have left the Iranians feeling particularly comfortable.
Amid all of these events, any window of opportunity that had existed with Khatami’s presidency faded away, and by 2005 it was the more hardline, anti-Western Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who was president of Iran. Relations between the two countries have been fairly pitiful since that point, with even a brief attempt at outreach by the newly inaugurated American President Barack Obama in 2009 failing to produce any positive results. All the while, Iran continued its nuclear development, and the Green movement protests in Iran following that country’s 2009 presidential election forced the Obama administration to take a more aggressive stance.
That brings us to this week, when Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is set to give his first speech at the UN General Assembly. He has pledged “to present the true face of Iran as a cultured and peace-loving country”, and it is conceivable that – provided Rouhani doesn’t repeat any of Ahmedinejad’s Holocaust denial rhetoric – U.S. diplomats might even stay in their seats for the entire speech rather than engaging in a mass walkout. (Still, I do not expect Israel to break with its tradition of leaving all of its seats empty from start to finish.) Rouhani has already followed the recent example of Vladimir Putin and published an op-ed in a high profile American newspaper, this time in The Washington Post.
These all seem like good signs at a time when the U.S. badly wants them. Iran is believed to be closing in on having a nuclear breakout capacity (i.e. the materials and expertise necessary to build a nuclear weapon in a short amount of time), if not an actual functioning bomb. Last year’s UN General Assembly memorably featured Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (better known here as “Benjamin Netanyahu”) demonstrating for Barack Obama the most effective means of using a red, felt tip marker.
Still, there are questions surrounding this latest beginning of a possible attempt at a chance of a window of opportunity for a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations. After all, it is not President Rouhani who is the top man in Iran’s power structure. The real power still resides with Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, and we have no reason to believe that he shares Rouhani’s desire for an improved relationship with the outside world.
Make no mistake: the president of Iran does not have significant authority over Iran’s nuclear program. One group that does is Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which answers directly to the Supreme Leader, bypassing civilian control. As if to prove my point, the IRGC released a statement over the weekend calling on the country’s diplomats not to engage with the U.S. “Historical experiences make it necessary for the diplomatic apparatus of our country to carefully and skeptically monitor the behavior of White House officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected by those who favor interaction,” read the statement, which was publicized by the Tansim news service.
Thus, it is no surprise that some consider Rouhani’s more welcoming rhetoric to be nothing more than empty words from a clever politician. Consider this article in the Jerusalem Post, which appeared on the same day as Rouhani’s Washington Post op-ed:
Jerusalem urged the world on Thursday not to be fooled by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s smiles and to intensify sanctions against the regime until he takes concrete steps toward dismantling Tehran’s nuclear program. “One should not be taken in by Rouhani’s deceptive words,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. “The same Rouhani boasted in the past how he deceived the international community with nuclear talks, even as Iran was continuing with its nuclear program.”
So should President Obama grant Rouhani the enhanced international legitimacy that comes with a handshake from the President of the United States? There are plenty of potential cons for the Obama administration on this one. Undoubtedly, Jewish and pro-Israel groups would declare even a brief, unphotographed meeting with Rouhani to be a betrayal. Many Republicans would likely follow suit, although it wouldn’t mean much coming from them, since they already denounce Obama with every opportunity they get. Those in the foreign policy community would likely applaud such a move by the two presidents, but probably for more idealistic reasons than realistic ones.
Would some kind of acknowledgement of Iran’s elected leader have any positive effect on the nuclear issue? That is a better question to ask. Here, I think the answer is a decidedly mixed bag. As I already pointed out, Khameini is the one calling the shots on that issue, and there will not be any direct negotiations unless he supports them. Handshakes don’t always produce glorious results: Donald Rumsfeld will probably never be able to live down that meeting he had with Sadaam Hussein back in the 1980s.
Still, there is a potential upside to a handshake with Rouhani that probably isn’t getting enough attention, and it has to do with Iranian domestic politics. Even though Rouhani does not have the kind of constitutional power that Supreme Leader Khameini possesses, he does have something else that may be equally important: popular legitimacy. While the Supreme Leader is elected by Iran’s Guardian Council of religious experts, the president is elected by the Iranian people. Rouhani’s victory was seen as a sign that Iranians were tired of the way their politicians had been handling things and that they wanted to see reforms and policy changes.
Many Iranians want to see some improvement in relations with the West (perhaps short of the complete re-establishment of diplomatic ties), not necessarily because they are adamantly pro-Western, but because sanctions imposed on Iran are causing severe hardships. Common sense suggests that most people prefer a decent standard of living to the international prestige of being a nuclear weapons state. The Iranian people are a relatively well-educated bunch, so they should be able to appreciate that a handshake with President Obama is an effort at avoiding further conflict and not a betrayal of everything their country holds dear.
More importantly, it is in the interest of the United States to boost Rouhani’s status within Iran. Of all the different Iranian politicians we could deal with, he appears to be one of the more reasonable ones. Reaching out to him individually helps increase the influence of a democratically elected official rather than one who rules by religious fiat. It keeps Rouhani from being yet another Iranian reformist who makes big promises but ultimately does not have the power to deliver.
Covert and overt efforts to change Iran’s regime have failed ever since 1979. What we need to realize is that a more open, democratic Iran is in the long-term interests of not just the United States but also the Iranian people. Ultimately, the Islamist regime is probably not going to be brought down by a foreign bombing campaign, or foreign economic sanctions, or foreign intelligence operatives, or any other foreign method. It will happen when the reform movement in Iran has gained enough domestic support to take power away from the hardliners. That is the best way to solve everyone’s problems.
President Obama, you should shake President Rouhani’s hand. I would not encourage a photograph, as that could be used against you in the short-term. However, I would encourage news of the meeting to be leaked to the press so that it will grant whatever international legitimacy the U.S. has left to this man who is our current best hope within Iran, even if Rouhani is far from perfect.
It is possible that the nuclear talks will continue to go badly despite such a move, but my guess is that history will look on it kindly. The second term of a presidency is the time for acting with less fear. Go ahead and prove to us all that a simple handshake is not a surrender of U.S. principles, but rather an effort to support them. Let’s not try so hard to be strong that we ending up being weak.