Can Rouhani Deliver?

NEW YORK – As world powers meet in Geneva to begin nuclear talks with Iran, the world awaits the follow-up to the phone call between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Barack Obama after Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly last month. That brief conversation – the first between the two countries’ presidents since 1979 – recalls the last attempt to revive bilateral diplomacy, undertaken 12 years ago by Iran’s then-President Mohammad Khatami. In both episodes, a missing handshake symbolized the countries’ persistent rift.

Back then, Khatami and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi “went shopping,” rather than attend a cultural event at the Asia Society and risk crossing paths – and shaking hands – with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. This time, despite Iran’s avoidance of a presidential handshake at the UN, Rouhani delivered a major address at the Asia Society asserting that his government would pursue policies of “moderation and common sense” and would be willing to work with the West on resolving questions about its nuclear program.

Moreover, handshakes were exchanged by the two countries’ foreign ministers, when John Kerry and Javad Zarif, joined by the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, held a formal meeting to organize the upcoming nuclear negotiations in Geneva. Kerry and Zarif shook hands again when the two met separately.

So what changed? Back then, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had forbidden Khatami to speak with the Americans. Rouhani, by contrast, proceeded with Khamenei’s blessing.