Iranians lament rebuff of first U.S. handshake since 1979

“Maybe Another Time,” read the front page of a Tehran-based newspaper after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama failed to meet at the United Nations in New York.

The story in Shargh, the most popular pro-Rouhani newspaper, followed a decision by Iranian officials that the time wasn’t yet right for a handshake between the two leaders. The Iranians cited domestic political considerations, a U.S. official told reporters yesterday.

The article expressed hope that a meeting between the two presidents may “finally happen” at a later date.

“I know maybe it’s not possible that they shake hands, but I was disappointed that the two presidents didn’t even pass by each other in a corridor, or even smile at each other,” said Mostafa, 48, a mustachioed bank teller sitting is his booth at a government-owned lender in Tehran’s affluent northwest. Like many Iranians, he asked only to be identified by his first name for security reasons.

Expectations are high among Rouhani’s electorate that he’ll improve fractious relations with Western governments and bring relief to an economy crippled by international sanctions. The Iranian rial, which lost more than half its value in the year before Rouhani’s June election, has gained about 20 percent since June 13.

Iranian Handshake

“I watched Rouhani’s speech live and felt proud when he said Iran didn’t want tension with the U.S.,” said Esmaeil Nourizi, a balding 65-year-old with a car dealership in downtown Tehran. “Iran’s economic prosperity is in Zarif and Rouhani’s hands,” he said as he drank tea, expressing the hope that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif would shake hands at a meeting tomorrow.

Shiva, a 40-year-old lawyer wearing a black scarf as she hurried with an armful of files to her office in northwestern Tehran, said she had “expected a milder tone from Rohani. In the first few minutes I was worried that he might repeat Ahmadinejad’s tone. To be honest, President Obama’s speech was more positive and hopeful for us.”

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

New Ties

Rouhani said in an interview with CNN last night that while “we didn’t have sufficient time” to coordinate a meeting with Obama, he and the Iranian people are committed to forging new ties with the U.S. Any encounter between Rouhani and Obama would have been the first between leaders of the two nations since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Rouhani, who took office in August, said in his address to the General Assembly that Iran 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.

Ahmad, a 33-year-old mechanic, said that the Obama administration had seemingly also heard the comments of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in a speech this month called for “heroic flexibility” in dealing with Western nations including the U.S. Khamenei is the highest authority in the Islamic Republic and the ultimate decision maker on Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy.

‘Heroic Leniency’

“I can see heroic leniency in both sides’ behavior,” said Ahmad, whose father was killed in the eight-year war against Iraq that ended in 1988.

“It’s good to see that a cleric as president is respected on the international scene,” said Ahmad, who lives in Tehran. “It doesn’t matter if they didn’t shake hands. What matters is that the world believes we are not a hostile nation and our leaders are experienced diplomats who can negotiate peacefully.”

The conservative Kayhan newspaper offered some of the most downbeat coverage today out of Tehran-based dailies, referring to Obama’s UN address as a “grand bluff.”

The headline highlights the belief of some of Rohani’s opponents who are not keen for a rapprochement with the U.S., which they consider untrustworthy.

Rouhani’s political opponents at home are generally silent for the time being, Sadegh Zibakalam, a political science professor at Tehran University, was quoted as saying in today’s edition of Shargh, citing Khamenei’s apparent backing of the president as a reason.

“At the same time they are convinced that Rouhani’s efforts won’t yield results,” Zibakalam wrote. “Hardline conservatives believe the U.S. is by nature Iran’s enemy and will agree to nothing less than the destruction of this regime.”

By Bloomberg


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