Will Rouhani and Obama get up and dance?

Analysis: Diplomatic engagement may require more political courage from leaders than does maintaining a hostile standoff

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama.
L. to R.: Mikhail Klimentyev/Reuters; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Like adolescent boys and girls sitting on opposite sides of the gymnasium at a junior high school dance, U.S. and Iranian officials have struggled for years to muster the courage merely to get up and cross the floor.

What would happen if he/she declines to dance? What would happen if he/she says yes but winds up stepping on toes? What will their friends and enemies say?

Last Sunday, in an interview with ABC, President Barack Obama acknowledged that he and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have exchanged letters, feeding speculation that the two may meet on the sidelines of next week’s annual high-powered opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

In geopolitics, as in dancing, choreography matters. It’s possible that such a “meeting” would amount to no more than a handshake at the U.N. secretary general’s annual luncheon for world leaders. Or there could be an exchange of pleasantries during a stage-managed encounter in a corridor. Even then, it would mark an unprecedented contact between presidents of two countries that have been estranged for 34 years.

Even if there is no presidential encounter, the annual diplomatic gabfest known as UNGA will provide ample opportunity for Iran to trade ideas with the United States and its negotiating partners over how to de-escalate the long-standing crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program. Early signaling by the Iranian side suggests a willingness to compromise, but the diplomacy now unfolding over Syria adds an extra layer of complexity to what had already been a difficult process.

At an Atlantic Council Iran-policy symposium in Washington last week, former U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn said that if the deal reached with Russia on removing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons falls apart, the implications for Iran nuclear diplomacy “would be very, very negative.” Conversely, “if the current efforts resulted in the end of Syria’s CW program, verifiably, credibly and quickly, with the absence of military action,” Einhorn argued, “I think this could have very positive implications on prospects for diplomacy and willingness to take a risk on diplomacy in the case of Iran.”

Obama sketched a similar calculus in his ABC interview, pushing back against the narrative that he had caved on military action against Syria in the face of stiff Congressional opposition, and seeking to counter the impression that limited international support for military intervention would make him reluctant to use force against Iran – if the Islamic Republic goes against its own pledges and actually develops nuclear weapons.

“The Iranians understand … that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat against … Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests,” Obama said. “My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize … they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran. On the other hand, what … they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”

In the run-up to the U.N. session, both the U.K.-educated Rouhani and his U.S.-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have waged a sophisticated public relations campaign to distance their administration from that of the often bellicose and dysfunctional former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both have tweeted greetings to Jews on the Jewish New Year and Zarif, in an extraordinary Facebook exchange with the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said that “Iran never denied it [the Holocaust]. The man who was perceived to be denying it [Ahmadinejad] is now gone. Happy New Year.”

Rouhani and Zarif have also called for “constructive interaction” with the outside world and promised to seek a “win-win” solution on the nuclear issue. An Iranian close to the two officials recently sketched possible outlines of a deal trading more intrusive inspections and curbs on the quality and quantity of Iran’s enriched uranium – to allay fears that it could be assembling the basis to create bomb-grade materiel on a shorter time frame – in return for lifting sanctions that have halved the country’s oil exports and crippled the overall economy. However, the U.S. and its allies have yet to say whether they would accept any uranium enrichment in Iran as part of a nuclear agreement.

Zarif, who arrives in New York this weekend, is to see Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief who has led the team representing the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China in nuclear negotiations with the Iranians, to schedule a new round of talks. The previous series of sessions, held in Kazakhstan in April, broke down with no progress.

Most experts believe that to make progress, the United States and Iran will need to talk one-on-one without the Europeans, Russians and Chinese in the room. (The only tentative agreement reached by the Obama administration and Iran on the nuclear issue emerged from a 45-minute bilateral meeting that took place in Geneva in 2009, between American Bill Burns and Saeed Jalili of Iran. It fell apart because it became a domestic political football in the fierce infighting within the Iranian political system in the aftermath of bitterly contested 2009 presidential elections.)

Einhorn said that “U.S.-Iran direct talks are probably indispensable,” and that “the best way to proceed [is] to have a very frank give-and-take about what each side really is seeking in these negotiations,” rather than to put forward multi-point proposals “chiseled in stone.”

Such talks would take place between senior- and mid-level officials and experts, but the two presidents can set a conducive tone.

Obama and Rouhani are scheduled to address the General Assembly within a few hours of each other on Tuesday Sept. 24. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton stayed in his seat in the assembly hall to listen to the speech by then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami -- a clear sign of respect. But Khatami, under fire at home for seeming too friendly to the West, balked at even a handshake.

Rouhani appears better equipped politically than Khatami was to break the ice with a U.S. president.

Personally close to the real executive decision-maker in Iran – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – as well as to Khatami and Khatami’s predecessor, Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Rouhani will be coming to New York at a time of extreme economic hardship in Iran. Rouhani, elected in June by more than half of Iranian voters on a platform of hope and change, needs to act quickly and achieve concrete results before the more xenophobic elements of Iran’s security establishment muster sufficient opposition to sabotage any diplomatic opening, and skeptical Iranians conclude that Rouhani is only concerned about the regime, not their well-being.

President Obama can strengthen the pragmatists’ case within the Iranian power structure by offering a diplomatic path that Tehran would deem a win-win. But to do that, he and Rouhani would have to be willing to get up and cross the floor.

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