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Iran’s Rebuff of Obama Handshake Shows Tough Task Ahead

Hassan Rohani, Iran's president, addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24, 2013. Photographer: Brendan McDermid/Pool via Getty Images
Hassan Rohani, Iran's president, addresses the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24, 2013. Photographer: Brendan McDermid/Pool via Getty Images

Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama’s attempt at direct engagement with Iran’s new president was rebuffed at the United Nations yesterday in a sign of the difficulty he’ll have in putting the U.S. relationship with the Persian Gulf nation on new footing.

On the same day that Obama told world leaders in New York that he welcomed overtures from Iranian President Hassan Rohani and the prospect of resolving a decades-long confrontation, Iranian officials told their U.S. counterparts that the time wasn’t yet right for even a handshake between the two leaders.

“We are encouraged that President Rohani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course,” Obama told world leaders gathered for the annual General Assembly meeting. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”

Obama used his address to define a broad U.S. role in the rapid changes taking place in the Middle East, a region that accounts for about a third of the world’s oil supply and is at the center of some of world’s most stubborn conflicts.

He argued that his administration has pursued a purposeful engagement in Middle Eastern conflicts and vowed that the U.S. will use all means necessary, including military force, to protect its “core interests” in the region, which include making sure that the global economy isn’t destabilized by a disruption in crude supplies.

In his own address to the General Assembly, Rohani, 64, said his nation is ready to engage in “result-oriented” talks on the nuclear program while offering no concessions. He called Iran’s goals peaceful and said nuclear weapons have no place in his country’s doctrine.

Private Negotiations

Behind the scenes, U.S. and Iranian officials were talking as the Obama administration made clear it was open to some informal encounter between Obama and Rohani when both were at the UN. While the U.S. didn’t plan for any official meeting or talks, Obama’s aides told the Iranians the two could have a discussion on the side if the opportunity presented itself, an administration official told reporters.

Any presidential encounter, even a greeting or handshake, would have been the first exchange between leaders of the two nations since the 1979 Islamic revolution, during which the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed and 52 Americans inside were held hostage for 444 days

The U.S. saw an opportunity with Rohani because the administration viewed his promises to the Iranian public to improve an economy hobbled by U.S.-led sanctions as an opening for a softer foreign policy stance, according to the official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the negotiations.

Iranian Politics

The Iranians said no. The U.S. official said they made it clear that domestic politics made such a step too complicated.

Rohani said last night during an interview on CNN that “we didn’t have sufficient time” to coordinate a meeting with Obama. Still, he said, the Iranian people are committed to forging new ties with the U.S.

Rohani is constrained by deep suspicion of the U.S. in Iran’s power circles, according to Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“If he would have now met with Obama or shook hands with him, the perception in Iran would have been among his enemies that he is just selling out,” Esfandiari said. “They are watching over him in Tehran and probably it wouldn’t have gone down well among some of the revolutionary guards and even maybe the supreme leader and the right-wing press.”

Warning U.S.

Obama, 52, also faces pressure to avoid acting too quickly to reach out to Iran, which has the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves.

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, who is scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Sept. 30, warned Obama not to fall into a diplomatic trap.

“We will not be fooled by half measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran’s continual pursuit of nuclear weapons,” he said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs, Republican Representative Ed Royce of California, said in a statement that the U.S. should keep pressing Iran “through crippling economic sanctions.”

In his address, Obama said he’s directing Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with his Iranian counterpart as part of talks over Iran’s nuclear program along with the other four permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany.

Oil Prices

Speculation about a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations helped push oil prices lower. West Texas Intermediate crude for November delivery declined 46 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $103.13 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the lowest settlement since July 30.

While the president has said previously he wants to shift U.S. foreign-policy attention toward Asia, his UN address demonstrated how much the Middle East continues to dominate the agenda. He cited three areas of focus for U.S. diplomacy in the near term: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the civil war in Syria.

The president challenged the world body to hold Syria’s regime accountable for promises to surrender its chemical weapons and warned that failure to achieve a political settlement that removes Bashar al-Assad from power risks wider violence and a bigger foothold for extremists.

He repeated the U.S. argument that there can be no doubt that Assad’s forces were behind a chemical attack against regime opponents outside Damascus that killed 1,429 people. While Assad has agreed under pressure to turn over Syria’s chemical weapons, Obama said a political solution that removes him from office must be the ultimate result.

‘Strong’ Resolution

“There must be a strong Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments, and there must be consequences if they fail to do so,” he said. “If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the UN is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.”

The president said the U.S. would give $340 million in additional humanitarian aid to Syria and other countries impacted by the civil war, bringing the U.S. total to almost $1.4 billion.

Obama said the U.S. must continue playing a major role in the world, even as its military begins standing down from more than a decade at war. He said what makes the U.S. exceptional is that its willing to stand up “for the interests of all.”

“I believe America must remain engaged for our own security,” he said. “But I also believe the world is better for it.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in New York at; Margaret Talev in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at

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