Why the great Obama-Rouhani handshake didn't happen

3 theories

It looks like the much-anticipated handshake between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won't happen.

After weeks of diplomatic niceties between the two sides, Rouhani reportedly backed out of an opportunity to meet Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

The missed connection came as something of an anticlimax after Rouhani's recent "charm offensive," in which he told NBC News that a letter he received from Obama was "positive and constructive."

That led to speculation that Obama and Rouhani would engage in "the most important — or at least the most analyzed — handshake since the historic grip between Rabin and Arafat," as Michael Crowley of TIME put it, referring to the 1993 Oslo Accords struck between between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

White House officials on Tuesday told reporters that Obama and Rouhani wouldn't be sharing a handshake — let alone a private meeting — because the politics were "too complicated" for the Iranian president back home. What exactly is holding Rouhani back? Here, three theories:

Khamenei doesn't approveThe president of Iran does have some control over the country's economic and social issues. The main man in charge, however, is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"The president and his team enter any talks only under the leader’s direct command," Hamid-Reza Taraghi, described as a Khamenei "insider," told The New York Times.

If Khamenei did put the kibosh on a meeting, that could bode ill for hopes that Iran is prepared to offer meaningful concessions on its nuclear program.

Rouhani has gotten on Khamenei's bad side before. He was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator in 2003 when Iran suspended uranium enrichment for several months — only to fall from the supreme leader's graces for a decade. He probably won't push his luck again.

Rouhani is looking to EuropeRouhani was elected by the Iranian people to fix Iran's dismal economy, which has been badly hit by Western sanctions that cut Iran's oil revenue in half in 2012. And the U.S. is not the only country imposing that punishment.

"The quickest way to improve the economy, without taking the unpopular step of removing food and fuel subsidies, is loosening sanctions," wrote TIME's Aryn Baker.

But that requires difficult compromises on Iran's fiercely defended nuclear program. Even if Iran won't give up the program per U.S. demands, flexibility on Rouhani's part may help delegitimize some sanctions, at least in Europe, providing some relief and allowing him to maintain support at home. [TIME]

Obama has said he won't budge without some concrete changes to Iran's nuclear policy. But if Rouhani can convince the EU that he is serious about compromise, he could boost Iran's economy without angering Iranian hard-liners with an Obama photo-op.

It's just too soonThe last time U.S. and Iranian heads of state met? That would be 36 years ago.

Just a year ago, Iran had a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called America the "Great Satan" and insinuated that the U.S. government might have launched the Sept. 11 attacks against itself. The gulf between that and a handshake is wide.

Plus, Secretary of State John Kerry is already planning to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the U.N. on Thursday.

Steps that seemed extremely improbable a year ago are taking place. If you were Rouhani, why would you take flak from conservatives back home for meeting with Obama when progress was being made anyway?

While Rouhani didn't end up shaking Obama's hand, he did say that Iran was prepared to engage in "time-bound and results-oriented" negotiations over its nuclear program, during his own speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday afternoon.


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