Rouhani and Obama Didn’t Meet—but That’s Okay!

What matters is what’s happening behind the scenes in Iran, where there are other signs of progress.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Despite rumblings of a historic meeting at the United Nations between the presidents of Iran and the United States, the two failed to cross paths yesterday in New York. The meeting would have been the first between presidents of the two countries since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. The official line from the U.S. was that the meetup was “too complicated” to arrange, but some have called the rebuff a blow to Iran’s cautious efforts at diplomacy that have been gathering momentum since Hassan Rouhani was elected this summer.

But in fact, the move was probably a capitulation to forces back in Tehran: to move from minimal contact for more than three decades to a handshake or meeting at the highest level in so short a span is no small matter, and Iran's hardliners cannot be alienated if this diplomatic push is to succeed. The fact that Iran pulled back from the meeting while continuing to indicate its appetite for engagement might actually reveal a seriousness that Iran has not displayed in a long time. Rouhani did, after all, take the time to meet with France's Francois Hollande to discuss Syria, Lebanon, and Iran’s nuclear program, and he delivered a moderate speech that was a marked departure from his predecessor’s trademark spite and vitriol at the podium. Rouhani isn’t messing around.

But while the spotlight is on the Iranian president in New York—CNN’s Christiane Amanpour called him “the ‘it’ man” of this UNGA—the most important political development in the Islamic Republic is not the election of an affable, well-connected, Scottish-educated moderate cleric with experience in nuclear negotiations; what matters is the silent shift behind the scenes that makes Rouhani’s rhetoric possible.

The fact that Iran pulled back from the meeting while continuing to indicate its appetite for engagement might actually reveal a seriousness that Iran has not displayed in a long time.

None of these developments would have come to pass without a green light from the Supreme Leader, whose support for political reform and Western-friendly rhetoric is notoriously difficult to secure. His is the final word on political matters big and small, and Iranian presidents both progressive and fundamentalist have found their mandate undermined from on high when they fell from Ali Khamenei’s favor. But President Rouhani’s very presence in New York this week sends a very strong signal that Khamenei is willing to put his weight behind Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts, at least for now.

The last three Iranian presidents have all at some point felt the Supreme Leader’s cold shoulder, at great cost to their political careers and agendas. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who succeeded Khamenei as president when the latter was appointed Iran’s second Supreme Leader in 1989, was very close with Khamenei when he entered office. But during Rafsanjani’s eight years in office, their relationship began to deteriorate, in part because of differences over foreign policy. Their disagreement cost Rafsanjani dearly earlier this year when his name was struck from the presidential ballot.

Ahmadinejad, elected in 2005 with Khamenei’s outspoken support, succumbed to a far more dramatic fall from grace during his second term in office. His misfortune came to a head when the Supreme Leader publicly reinstated a minister that the president had fired the very same day and escalated from there. Ahmadinejad was politically hobbled in the final years of his presidency, and his Chief of Staff and protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was disqualified from the 2013 election alongside Rafsanjani.

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Kaveh Waddell is a Staff Correspondent at National Journal.

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