No Handshake, But ‘Taboo’ of US-Iran Negotiations Broken

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One of the more anticipated events at the UN General Assembly this week was the possibility of a handshake between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The handshake, which ultimately did not happen, would have been a first for the presidents of the two countries since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

According to an Iranian official who accompanied Rouhani to New York, the president did not attend the luncheon hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon because “Based on official Iranian ceremonial protocols, Iranian delegations do not participate in banquets where alcohol is served.” The official added that “Iranian delegations in the past have never participated in such ceremonies.”

It was reported that the US had offered an “encounter,” but that Iranian officials said it would be “too complicated.” In an interview with CNN’s Christian Amanpour, Rouhani said that while preparations had been made for the meeting and although Iran is not opposed to such a meeting in principle, “There was not sufficient time to coordinate” it. Rouhani did say, however, that “the ice is already breaking” in this regard.

Asre Iran’s editor elaborated on Rouhani’s comments in an column headlined “What Happened in New York: Not Shaking Hands But Breaking The Taboo.” The editor wrote that while “the big event, meaning the shaking of the hands, did not take place, a bigger event took shape: the breaking of a taboo.”

The article continued, “Up until now, whatever was stated by the governments of Washington and Tehran against one another was nothing but hostility. In addition, especially in Iran, even speaking about negotiating with America was a difficult and complicated topic and in certain times would be the cause of judicial trouble.”

According to the editor, so much has changed since the election of Rouhani that the presidents of the US and Iran “speak respectfully about one another.” The article said that Obama acknowledged the supreme leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons in his UNGA speech and stated that he has authorized Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue negotiations at the P5+1 ministerial meeting Thursday, which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will attend.

As far as Rouhani’s UNGA speech went, “After sorting through the introduction — which was intended for domestic use — Rouahani reached the primary subject and referred to Obama in a respectful and protocol fashion as ‘President Obama’ and said that he listened to his words very carefully and believes the differences could be managed.”

The editor wrote that while the handshake did not take place, “It does not change the prime issue, which is that two countries are closer than they have ever been to negotiations.” While stressing that actions are important as well, the article stated, “If domestic pressure groups in both countries are not able to dominate the discourse of talks, relations between Iran and the US … can be divided into two eras: before and after Rouhani’s trip to New York.”

Not all media had such a favorable outlook, however. Raja News reported that a hard-line student association wanted an apology from Obama before negotiations took place. Hard-line Jahan News also wrote that Rouhani’s not attending the luncheon due to the presence of alcohol showed that “Preserving and sustaining the principles of religion and the revolution take priority over political expediency.” In the article, headlined “The Bitter Wine That Obama Preferred Over the Sweetness of Meeting Rouhani,” Jahan wrote that “Rouhani and his accompanying team showed astuteness in preventing a hasty act.”

Reformist newspaper Shargh Daily, like most Reformist papers, was enthusiastic about a Rouhani-Obama meeting. They went with the headline “Maybe Another Time” on their front page, a reference to the missed opportunity for the two presidents to shake hands. Ghanoun chose as its top headline a line from Rouhani’s speech: “Peace Is Within Reach,” with a smiling Obama and Rouhani looking in each other’s directions.