Behind Iran's Charm Offensive

Hassan Rouhani, Iran's new leader, talks a good game on improving ties with the U.S. Why the White House wants to believe he's for real

Ray Stubblebine

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waits to address the U.N. General Assembly.

At the U.N. on Sept. 24, it appeared possible that President Obama would have an historic encounter, to use the diplomatic term of art, with Iran's recently elected President Hassan Rouhani, somewhere in the bustling U.N. complex.

More than at any time since 1979, each side has a strong motive for a rapprochement: Obama wants to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear-weapons capability without risking another Middle East war. Rouhani was elected with a mandate to improve an economy ravaged by sanctions. In the days before the U.N. confab, the Iranians seemed very keen for a presidential handshake and Rouhani told an interviewer he would consider meeting Obama. White House aides made it clear that the American President was game.

It didn't happen.

The weeklong do-si-do's abrupt end was a puzzling turn — and a potentially pivotal one for Obama. Since Rouhani's election in June, the Iranian President has repeatedly signaled a willingness to cut a deal over Iran's nuclear program, which was generally nonnegotiable during the term of his predecessor, the gleefully antagonistic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It became clear that Obama was just as eager for a deal — perhaps even more so. But the missed opportunity to meet and Rouhani's vagueness so far on possible concessions suggests that Obama could find himself with no hand to shake after all, right up to the day when he must decide whether to go to war.

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