Sept. 21 (Bloomberg) -- The official word at the White House is there’s no telling whether President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rohani might end up chatting in a hallway or meeting room at next week’s United Nations gathering in New York.
“I can’t predict every interaction that might take place,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters on a conference call yesterday. “It’s possible that there could be some interaction at different levels, but there’s simply none planned at this moment.”
Even a handshake between Obama and Rohani during the opening week of the UN General Assembly would be a symbolic step beyond the hostility and distrust that have infused three decades of U.S.-Iran relations. It also would present risks and rewards for both sides.
“For the first time I think in 33 years since the Iranian revolution, my sense is that there are positive signs,” Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in an interview. “But it is hard for me to believe that suddenly you have Rohani and Obama sitting and having a cup of coffee in the cafeteria.”
It would be the first direct encounter between the two nations’ leaders since relations ruptured during the 1979 Iranian revolution and U.S. embassy hostage crisis. A breakthrough in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and U.S.-backed economic sanctions is possible because of the new Iranian leader’s campaign to make over Iran’s image, marked by moves including the release of political prisoners and an exchange of letters with Obama.
“There have been some positive developments,” Rhodes said. “But those are clearly not sufficient to meet the concerns of the international community with regards to the nuclear program.”
Conciliatory signals continued to be sent from Tehran. Rohani declared the end of “zero-sum” politics and “blood feuds” in an opinion piece published Sept. 19 by the Washington Post, as he urged world leaders “to seize the opportunity” of his election.
While the White House has declined to make public Obama’s letter to Rohani, it was portrayed yesterday by a prominent political analyst in Tehran as showing the American president is “keen for negotiations to be held to resolve the nuclear issue.”
“Obama asked for the removal of ambiguities and said sanctions can be lifted as a result,” Amir Mohebian said yesterday in a phone interview, while acknowledging he hadn’t read the letter himself.
‘Extend a Hand’
An encounter at the UN would fulfill Obama’s promises in his first presidential campaign and inaugural address to “extend a hand” to foes who are willing to “unclench your fist.” Aaron David Miller, who was a Middle East adviser in several U.S. administrations, said he sees no downside or domestic political risk to Obama from simply greeting Rohani.
A handshake “is about gestures -- about making a point, not about making a difference,” Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center in Washington, said in an interview. “It’s an inevitable and necessary first step in a process of testing intentions.”
Dennis Ross, Obama’s former chief adviser on Iran, said Rohani’s willingness to abandon anti-U.S. rhetoric and engage a country demonized by contemporary Iran’s revolutionary founders as “the Great Satan” is compelling because he appears to have the backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
That’s a sign the economic price being imposed for Iran’s nuclear activities “is real and the Iranian leadership knows it must find a way reduce it” by negotiating a deal to lift sanctions, Ross said in an interview.
Negotiations beyond a handshake would hold political dangers for both presidents.
For Rohani, who took office last month, the push for moderation may be a limited-time experiment if it fails to produce an easing of the sanctions that are crippling Iran’s performance and is perceived as a failure by Khamenei and the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that controls much of Iran’s economy.
“A handshake with the Great Satan’s president would be reasonably popular on the streets, but I suspect many Iranian political figures -- even beyond the hard-liners -- would wonder what Rohani received in return,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Previous Iranian leaders who sought to improve relations with their U.S. counterparts came away with little to show for their efforts, said Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American Iranian Council, a Princeton, New Jersey-based group that promotes better relations between the two countries.
“Iranian presidents who have reached out to the U.S. have been burned,” Amirahmadi said. “Rohani has put his trust in Obama doing the right thing by him, and if he cannot get the sanctions lifted he’ll face a backlash at home.”
Obama is already being portrayed by Republican lawmakers as vacillating on whether to strike Syria for using nerve gas on civilians and as being upstaged by Russian President Vladimir Putin through Russia’s initiative for Bashar al-Assad to hand over his chemical arsenal.
“The risk is we go into a process that is open-ended and doesn’t produce results,” said Alireza Nader, a policy analyst at the Rand Corp. who studies Iran. “Then I think the administration is going to face increased pressure to consider the military option if there’s not some movement in the next few months. The next few months are very important.”
While Iran says its nuclear program is solely for civilian use, the U.S. and allies say they suspect it’s covertly seeking the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Obama, who has backed an array of economic sanctions to pressure Iran, hasn’t ruled out using military force if that fails.
Talks with Iran that don’t succeed in curbing its nuclear program would provoke criticism from U.S. allies in the Middle East.
“There’s a sense that Obama is timorous, uncertain, inept, indecisive,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington. “If he doesn’t handle this well, this could reinforce that.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is due to speak at the UN on Sept. 30 and meet with Obama at the White House that day, has already portrayed Rohani’s moderate tone as cover to continue efforts to develop a nuclear bomb.
“We shouldn’t blindly accept the deceitful words of the Iranian president,” Netanyahu’s office said Sept. 19 in a statement. “The Iranians are using spin in the media in order to continue to spin their centrifuges.”
The prospect of U.S.-Iran conciliation also is raising alarms in Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a proxy conflict with Iran in Syria, where the kingdom backs rebels seeking the ouster of the Iranian-backed Assad.
“The Saudis feel sideswiped by the U.S.-Russian agreement regarding Syria’s chemical weapons, and in addition they are getting punched by the fact there may be direct bilateral talks between Washington and Tehran,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
If an ice-breaking meeting between Obama and Rohani were to lay the ground for substantive follow-up talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, or nuclear negotiators on both sides, the potential payoff could be substantial.
For Obama, defusing the slow-motion crisis over Iran’s nuclear program and ending the threat of a military confrontation in a region that holds half of the world’s crude oil reserves would deliver his biggest foreign policy victory.
For Rohani, even gradual relief from sanctions would start to alleviate Iran’s downward economic spiral, the biggest domestic challenge he faces.
Oil revenue had been reduced by half by sanctions targeting Iran’s main source of revenue, Iran’s former Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini said in December. Iran’s currency, the rial, lost more than half its value in the year before Rohani’s June 14 election, due in part to sanctions denying Iran access to the world financial system. Iran’s economy declined 5.4 percent in the year ending in March, Rohani said in an interview on Iranian state television.
Not Walking Out
Even if a full-fledged Obama-Rohani meeting at the UN is unlikely, conciliation would be signaled simply if the U.S. delegation stays in the hall during Rohani’s address to the UN, rather than walking out as they did when former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered anti-Western and anti-Semitic diatribes.
Holding off on a presidential-level meeting may not be a bad thing, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group in Washington. An unplanned bilateral meeting “could be a risky venture, prematurely squandering a genuine opportunity for starting a new chapter in the two countries’ relations,” he said.
Productive talks need proper planning and a fresh approach “to break free of the failed policies of the past,” he said. The better choice may be a simple “meet-and-greet in the UN’s corridors that is more symbolic than substantive.”