US-Iran Handshakes: Then And Now – OpEd


As expected, the news of President Obama’s “accidental” encounter and handshake with Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif on Monday in the UN hallways has triggered a small political firestorm inside Iran, with several hard-line lawmakers calling on Zarif to recant or face impeachment.

Despite such criticisms, Zarif is unlikely to apologize or be forced out of office, as was the case with Mehdi Bazargan, a former prime minister who met and shook hands with the the then US national security advisor, Zbignew Brzezinski in Algiers in November, 1979. Bazargan was quickly ousted after the US embassy takeover that was partly triggered by the picture of Bazargan-Brzezinski handshake — that was interpreted in post-revolutionary Iran as a bridge too far.

But, fortunately this cannot be said about the (hitherto unconfirmed) Obama-Zarif handshake, which to many ordinary Iranians can only be interpreted as a sign of good will by both sides.

Incidentally, this reminds me of another “accidental” near-encounter between President Clinton and Iran’s President Khatami at the 2001 UN General Assembly summit. Back then I wrote about that episode and how it was organized by Giandomenico Picco, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Dialogue Among Civilizations, with a minor participation by this author ( As I recall, that was to be managed through last minute improvization, and at the last minute the cautious Khatami opted not to take the risk at home and (perhaps wisely) avoided Clinton, although Picco was somewhat more successful by luring Madeleine Albright who was the US Secretary of State to a Khatami-led panel on dialogue at a UN hall. That was the first time that a high-level US official was attending a speech by an Iranian leader, thus raising hopes that a mini-breakthrough in the troubled US-Iran relations was imminent.

Yet, fourteen years later, that breakthrough has not yet happened, despite the solid progress in nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers, thus warranting a mixed feeling regarding the prospects for the improvement of US-Iran ties. In this context, symbolic handshakes have the measured utility of serving as a barometer of warming relations.

The big question is, of course, why Zarif will likely survive the political ramifications of his handshake Obama when Bazargan was ousted? The answer lies in Iran’s political evolution and maturity since the early days of the revolution, when the fear of an Americanist restoration of the ancien regime ran supreme and turned the moderate Bazargan into a helpless prey of radicals, who shortly thereafter took over the US embassy in Iran.

Times are definitely changing and it is to the credit of nuclear diplomacy that the taboo of direct US-Iran talks has been broken, in light of the numerous bilateral meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials. Thus, although Zarif took some heat for strolling in the European streets with Secretary of State John Kerry, in the end he was able to survive the backlash by the conservatives, which may have emboldened Zarif to take a calculated risk.

It is therefore rather instructive to put one’s foot in Zarif’s shoe and view the various pros and cons of the “risky” handshake, which has prompted heated criticisms by Iran’s hard-liners. One big difference with the Bazargan era that stands out is, of course, the political institutionalization of the regime, which is no longer unstable and without the necessary confidence that it can assert itself and survive. This evolutionary process has resulted in a qualitative improvement in the national confidence, as a result of which the taboo of direct dialogue with the “Great Satan” has been broken.

Another key difference in favor of Zarif is that there is now a big nuclear agreement in place that will require sustained US-Iran dialogue and, therefore, the handshake can be legitimately interpreted as a sign of good will that complements the negotiated nuclear settlement. However symbolic, the Obama-Zarif handshake conveys the impression of incremental improvement in US-Iran relations at a delicate time when such important issues as Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan are on the two nations’ plate and require serious “smart diplomacy.” On Iran’s part, this was also important because of the recent intelligence-sharing agreement between Iran, Russia, and Iraq, which has unsettled Washington to some extent. A little extra step by Iran toward Washington reflected in Zarif’s willingness to meet Obama and shake hands with him was a balancing act that will definitely need other actions to solidify it, in order to avoid a pro-Russia tilt in Iran’s foreign policy.

From Iran’s vantage, US needs to come on board any Syria policy in order to be successful. Concerning Syria, at a private session with US pundits, President Rouhani admitted that the government of Syria has lost control over two thirds of its territory and “only a few cities” remain under the government’s control.

There is, in other words, a real sense of urgency about Syria, which is why Iran has unveiled a four point peace plan and is in dialogue with a number of regional countries on how to bring the bloody conflict to an acceptable peace?

So far, however, US and Iran have not been able to hold direct talks on Syria because of direct order from the Supreme Leader to limit to the nuclear issue, as a result of which such a dialogue has been transpiring through the European interlocutors. Rouhani and the French President Hollonde had a constructive meeting on the sideline of UN summit and according to Rouhani his French counterpart expressed some agreement with Iran’s postion on the priority of combatting terrorism in Syria. Rouhani has been invited to visit Paris and Iran-French relations are on the path of rapid improvement, this while the US-Iran relations remains in a state of perpetual limbo for various historical and political reasons or obstacles.

In turn, this recalls an astute observation by Mr. Picco back then, when President Khatami backed away from the opportunity to shake President Clinton’s hand through a “planned chance encounter” at the UN hallways.

“US-Iran relations is like Waiting for the Godot — except that Godot never arrives,” Picco once said in 2001. The Zarif-Obama handshake might however be considered as a minor tremor in this truism, breaking a small ice that, hopefully, will not backfire by creating new ice due to the internal heat in Iran it has generated. If so, then in historical retrospective, Zarif’s bold move may be seen by future historians as a bold and timely move that was a step in the right direction by a self-proclaimed government of “moderation and prudence.”

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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