Will Rouhani’s Diplomatic Flirtation Lead to a Real Thaw in US-Iran Relations?

BY Gwen Ifill  September 25, 2013 at 4:43 PM EST

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says carefully planned meetings “that create conclusions we want” are more important than symbolic handshakes. Photo by Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images

NEW YORK — To call what Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has undertaken in the last few weeks a charm offensive is understatement by any measure.

Through diplomatic flirtation and apparent openness, Rouhani has set out to take the Obama administration, the U.S. news media, thought leaders and diplomats from around the world by storm.

His goal? To gain relief from the punishing sanctions the international community has imposed on Iran as a way of curbing any nuclear ambitions it might be harboring. His approach? To persuade the watching world that he is a new kind of Iranian leader — moderate, reasonable and shrewdly political.

In a series of interviews — including one tonight with PBS’ Charlie Rose — Rouhani has declared he only wants peace, acknowledged (unlike his immediate predecessor) that the Holocaust was a crime against humanity and offered himself up as a moderate who is eager to find middle ground with the West.

The one thing he did not do was shake President Obama’s hand, even when it was figuratively offered by U.S. diplomats.

“There really are no problems in terms of shaking Mr. Obama’s hand and negotiating,” Mr. Rouhani told a meeting of news division presidents, anchors and foreign affairs columnists Wednesday morning, speaking through a translator. “More important is we need a plan to ensure that those meetings … create conclusions we want … we need time.”

A senior Obama administration official who briefed reporters in New York Tuesday said their effort to arrange a casual handshake meeting between the two leaders was rebuffed. “We see a real opening here for a diplomatic process,” the official said. “But the Iranians, at this point, were not ready to have an encounter at the presidential level.”

Rouhani is aware of the 35-year chasm that exists between the U.S. and Iran, which have not had diplomatic relations since the 1977 kidnapping of American hostages in Tehran.

A handshake, he said is symbolic and useful mostly as a way of getting to mutual goals.

But whose goals? The United Nations and the U.S. have long suspected Iran is developing new weapons, something the Iranians have denied. The Iranians, in the meantime, want to rebuild an economy crippled by international sanctions on banking and trade while retaining the ability to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

“We seek nothing more than legal rights under international law,” Rouhani told us. “Forty countries can already do enrichment. We want to be viewed as one of those. Nothing less; nothing more.”

“I believe the other side should have the political will to sit down with us,” he added. “Not use nuclear issue as a pretext or an excuse.”

That will occur Thursday, as Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif sits down face to face with Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of the U.N. General Assembly meetings.

In the meantime, the two Presidents, Rouhani said, will continue their exchange of polite letters. “Our final goal is a mutual interest that can come by reciprocal trust — hard in the beginning — but it can happen.”