No presidential handshake, but US and Iran slated to meet at UN

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are set to join nuclear talks

Zarif and Kerry are set to meet Thursday in a crucial negotiating session.
L. to R.: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The fact that there was no handshake between President Barack Obama and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York Tuesday may have seemed like an anticlimax, given the frenzy of media speculation surrounding the prospect of a meeting between the two men. But even without the symbolic boost of the first confab between the presidents of the rival powers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, renewed diplomacy to address the nuclear stalemate has not stalled.

Rouhani and Obama could have encountered one another at a lunch for world leaders hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday, but the prospect of diplomatic chatter at a meal where alcohol was served provided a reason for Rouhani to stay away, Iranian state media reported.

A number of Iran watchers, however, saw Rouhani's avoidance of an encounter with Obama as a reminder of the domestic political challenges the Iranian leader faces in selling engagement with the U.S. to more hawkish elements in Tehran.

While the handshake would have been a profoundly important symbolic gesture, it would have been solely that. Thursday's planned meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, however, will occur in a more substantial negotiating session. Both leaders are slated to be present at a meeting of Iran and the P5+1 group -- the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- which has been locked in fruitless talks over Iran's nuclear program since 2006. Should both show up, theirs would be the first meeting since May 2007 between an American secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister.

While prior rounds of talks between P5+1 and Iran have largely been confined to nuclear negotiators and technical teams, Thursday's meeting at the foreign ministerial level suggests renewed political will among the stakeholders to pursue a diplomatic solution.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, who coordinates the P5+1 group, told reporters after meeting Zarif on Monday that she saw "energy and determination" to move forward with the negotiations, which had stalled last April in Kazakhstan. 

The negotiations have thus far failed to bridge the gap in scale and sequencing between Western demands for verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear activities and Iran's demands for relief from punishing sanctions.

Rouhani insisted in his U.N. speech that Iran has no interest in pursuing nuclear weapons. "Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions," he told the General Assembly.

Obama, for his part, noted that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had issued a religious "fatwa" against the development and use of nuclear weapons, and said the edict formed the basis for agreement -- if it could be verified that Iran was abiding by it.

History of negotiations

Click for more coverage of diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran

The Iranian side has also been concerned that the endpoint of a diplomatic solution hasn't been clearly defined. Western powers had previously demanded that Iran give up on all enrichment activities, which Tehran says violates its rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The U.N. Security Council demanded in 2006 that Iran suspend enrichment of uranium until transparency concerns raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had been satisfactorily addressed. The Security Council has since imposed four rounds of sanctions to punish Tehran's defiance. The U.S. and its allies have imposed even more punishing sanctions that have constricted Iran's economy.

Analysts suggest that the parameters of a potential deal with Iran would set strict limits on Tehran's nuclear work and enhance inspections and other safeguards against weaponization -- in exchange for easing sanctions.  

But such a solution would require flexibility and realism from both sides, Iran scholar Farideh Farhi told Al Jazeera. She explained that the broad outline of an initial agreement has been extensively discussed in public, including temporary limitations on Iran's 20 percent enrichment activities and the implementation of the Additional Protocol of the IAEA that allows for a stricter inspection regime.

"Up to now, (Iran) has maintained a maximalist position regarding the easing of sanctions, calling for suspension of most sanctions in the first stages. This position is obviously unrealistic and will have to change," Farhi said.

Whether the parties can bridge their differences remains to be seen. Many analysts maintain that direct talks between the U.S. and Iran are needed to overcome the deadlock in the P5+1 process, in addition to leveraging the existing negotiation platform.

Tuesday's speeches also offered a reminder of deep ideological differences between the U.S. and Iran. A number of factors present obstacles to an agreement, including the crisis in Syria; what Rouhani called "coercive" economic and military practices geared to maintain Western superiority as the epitome of what he said is "an old way of thinking"; and the perennial issue of Israel. Both leaders also have to persuade hawkish domestic constituencies to follow the path of compromise. 

But Farhi said the Iranian establishment was supportive of Rouhani's speech. Former Revolutionary Guard commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said the speech was "intelligent," while the head of the Iranian judiciary called it "polite and logical," she told LobeLog.

While a major breakthrough may not be imminent, Farhi sees positive possibilities in even limited renewed engagement. "The bottom line," she told Al Jazeera, "is that after 35 years of open hostility and 10 years of unfruitful and troubled negotiations, any kind of initial agreement on the nuclear file, no matter how limited, would be a truly significant step in shaking the hostile narratives that have become deeply institutionalized in both countries."  

With wire services

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter