President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday is not expected to generate much excitement. Battered by his uneven handling of Syria, no bold foreign policy initiatives are likely.
Instead, the undisputed diplomatic rock star of the gathering will be Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. In his first six weeks in office, the cleric has carried out one of the most aggressive charm offensives in the 34-year history of the Islamic Republic. And the Obama administration responded Thursday, saying the president would be open to having a meeting in New York.
If Obama and Rouhani, who will both address the assembly on Tuesday, simply shake hands in public, it will be the seminal event of the gathering’s first day.
“More than any words he might say, Rouhani’s greatest gesture would be shaking hands with President Obama,” Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an email Thursday. “It would be one of the most significant geopolitical handshakes in years.”
For both Obama and Rouhani, the stakes are high. The war in Syria is metastasizing into a regional Sunni-Shia conflict. A Middle East conflagration could derail a tepid American economic recovery. And sweeping Western sanctions have devastated Iran’s economy. Each leader also faces bitter opposition from domestic conservatives — ready to pounce if either president blinks in the three-decade cold war between the two nations.