An Obama-Rowhani handshake?

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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A lot can change in one year, in Iranian lexicon that could mean going from a president who denies the Holocaust and accuses Western powers of “serving the devil” to one who sends “Rosh Hashanah” (Jewish new year) greetings via social media and is ready to sit down and negotiate directly with the United States, aka the “great Satan.”

This, in a nutshell, has been the transition from former Iranian president and conspiracy-theorist Mahmoud Ahmedinijad to moderate, soft spoken and British educated President Hassan Rowhani. His election on June 14 has triggered diplomatic shockwaves regionally and internationally, leading to speculation in “The Guardian” that he could make history at the United Nations on Tuesday if we see a handshake with President Barack Obama.

There is no question that an Obama-Rowhani handshake is a wild shot and faces high political odds, given that it hasn’t happened since Jimmy Carter’s meeting with the toppled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1977. Yet, the remote possibility of its occurrence and the fact that we are talking about it, is a testimony to the changing political dynamic and environment between Tehran and Washington.

There is no question that an Obama Rowhani handshake is a wild shot

Joyce Karam

Both Obama and Rowhani are addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday and they will be staying less than mile apart, at the Waldorf and One U.N. hotels respectively. While National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan tells Al Arabiya that “there are currently no plans for the president and President Rowhani to meet at UNGA,” an “impromptu” corridor handshake between the two or their respective foreign ministers, John Kerry and Javad Zarif, can still happen. It is those same corridors that witnessed an Obama-Qaddafi handshake in 2009 and a more controversial one between former U.S. President Bill Clinton with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2000 during the Millennium summit. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf also made news shaking former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hand in 2005, and it is fair to say that most Western leaders went out of their way between 2005 and 2013 to avoid Rowhani’s predecessor Ahmadinejad.

Three months into Rowhani’s presidency, there is certainly political momentum building between Tehran and Washington that could prompt such gesture. The U.S. admitted to the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in both the 1953 coup and providing intelligence input for Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, where he resorted to chemical weapons in the 1980s. Obama even admitted last Sunday to exchanging letters with Rowhani via Sultan Qaboos of Oman. Iran, for its part, has shown readiness for negotiations including the possibility of lowering enrichment of Uranium, and condemned use of chemical weapons after the Ghouta massacre in Syria. Also, last Monday, an article in Der Speigel reported that Rowhani is considering shutting down the Fordo nuclear facility.

Risks and Opposition

While an Obama-Rowhani handshake is not outside the realm of possibility, and could kick start serious negotiations as the clock ticks on Iran’s nuclear capability, the move brings high political risks for both leaders. The U.S. congress voted 400-20 for increasing sanctions on Tehran a month after Rowhani was elected, and an anti-regime group, “United against nuclear Iran,” went as far as complaining to the New York hotel "One UN" to “reconsider hosting” him.

Rowhani also faces opposition in the Iranian parliament against compromising on what they see as Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Distrust of the West and a disdain for military threats is prevalent among some elite.

In this aspect, both Rowhani’s and Obama’s soft spoken tones could help one another on their home fronts. For Obama, an Iranian president who tweets about international law and reaches out across religious sects, makes a more appealing hand shaker than one who affronts Western civilization. And for Rowhani, a U.S. president with the name and background of Barack Obama, who is also seeking a legacy of ending wars in the Middle East, with a cabinet of pragmatists and pro-engagement figures, presents a golden opportunity to change the trajectory of relations between the U.S. and the Islamic republic.

Neither Obama nor Rowhani seem to be under any illusion about the consequences of a failure in negotiations. The military option for the U.S. remains on the table, and unlike the case with Syria, congressional lawmakers are more likely to support it. Iran’s influence is also a reality in the region and could make life harder for the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon if the situation deteriorates.

But for now, the diplomatic opportunity is real for the two countries, and an Obama-Rowhani or a Kerry-Zarif handshake next week could go a long way in promoting it.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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