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The Handshake That Wasn't

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Iranian President Hassan Rohani won't be shaking hands at the United Nations.
U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Iranian President Hassan Rohani won't be shaking hands at the United Nations.
It was variously described as “a handshake that could shake the world” and “the diplomatic big tease of the year."

A simple clasp of hands between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rohani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this week was never guaranteed to happen, but there had been enough winks and hints by both sides to get everyone very, very excited.

If the two men connected, the narrative went, no less than world peace would seem a little more assured.

Alas, it’s not going to happen.

The official reason, according to the White House, is that the Iranians backed out.

White House officials say they offered to arrange “an encounter” between the two leaders, but a senior administration official told reporters after the opening day luncheon on September 24 that Iran didn’t want one.

"We have said publicly, and we also said privately to the Iranians, that we're open to having discussions on the margins of UNGA -- informal discussions, not a bilateral meeting. That proved to be too complicated for the Iranians to do at this point,” a senior administration official said.

Pressed for details, the official said: “The Iranians...have an internal dynamic that they have to manage. And the relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other Western countries, even.”

So that’s the U.S. version. Iranian state-controlled Press TV suggested a more prosaic reason was to blame. It issued a breaking news report that said, “Rohani has skipped the opening day luncheon because alcohol was being served.”

That's borne out at least partly by a White House pool report from the luncheon that contains this detail: after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toasted to dialogue between nations, Obama "raised his water glass" and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry "raised his white wine.”

Most of the speculation about where and when an encounter might take place focused on the luncheon. And while it easily could have happened at that buffet lunch -- "Can I get you a roll, Mr. President? -- it could have also taken place in private, at another time.

By implying that alcohol ruined the moment, Press TV is blaming UN caterers for the miss, and giving Rohani, and Iran, an elegant out.

But if the White House version is correct -- that the Iranians refused an offer -- the question becomes whether Rohani ever really wanted to shake hands? At this point, we only know Obama did.

-- Heather Maher

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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