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A deep suspicion

Brian Kaneb | Thursday, September 26, 2013

Should President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shake hands? It was the question of the week. The United Nations General Assembly was coming up, and the two leaders were in the perfect situation for a sign of diplomacy. They were not like their predecessors, who took their invitations as annual opportunities to trump up the differences between the United States and Iran.
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not only remembered for his argument that Israel “is on a definite slope to collapse,” but also for saying so with so much force that the American delegation walked out on him. President George W. Bush may not have been as blunt, but he must have angered Iran just as much as it angered us when he called it a “threat to civilization” in 2008.
President Obama and President Rouhani took a step back from this language. They will never talk about how much they love the other country, but at least they have stopped talking about how much they hate it. And in the realm of American-Iranian relations, this is progress.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney provided evidence of this shift when he noted that “while no meeting is scheduled with President Rouhani, … we don’t rule out that type of engagement.” It was clear he was trying to say, euphemistically, that a meeting was not going to happen.
Yet, there is more to the statement than meets the eyes. The administration did not want Americans to think it was reaching out to Iran – that would be a public relations disaster – but it also did not want Iran to think a meeting was impossible. These signs of rapprochement, along with the fact that President Obama and President Rouhani were scheduled to speak on the same day, led to the media giving much attention to the potential handshake.
Of course, it never happened. American-Iranian relations often spiral from bad to worse, but they rarely rebound that quickly because “the suspicion runs too deep.” These were the words of President Obama to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. They were written to make it seem like he is not part of the game, but he still plays into the distrust.
It may seem honest for President Obama to call on Iran to “meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and United Nations Security Council resolutions,” but doing so implies it is already violating these agreements. This is simply not the case. Iran has clearly not complied with every United Nations investigation, but it has made many concessions that are not required under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. One example of this is its willingness to forsake domestic production for an international consortium overseeing the nuclear process.
President Rouhani also made use of the aforementioned suspicion. He seemed taken back by political differences, like “the criminal assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists,” and cultural differences, like the “Islamo-phobic, Shia-phobic, and Iran-phobic discourses” he supposedly sees in the West. Still, as bad as his tone was in this part of the speech, it was not terrible overall. President Rouhani told President Obama that he “listened carefully” to his words and even mentioned they could “arrive at a framework to manage our differences.” The two leaders are not as opposed to one another in public as their predecessors, but those hoping for a diplomatic dialogue in the near future should not get their hopes up.

Brian Kaneb is a senior studying     political science. He can be reached at     bkaneb1@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.