President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly this morning, and mostly touched on issues you'd expect him to focus on. Obama reiterated his condemnation of Syria's Assad government, for example, over its alleged use of chemical weapons, and urged more international cooperation to stop Assad and prevent the use of these weapons.
But there was one part of the president's speech that went further than many expected.
"The United States and Iran have been isolated from one another since the Islamic revolution of 1979. This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs and of America's role in overthrowing the Iranian government during the Cold War. On the other hand, Americans see an Iranian government that has declared the United States an enemy and directly or through proxies taken American hostages, killed U.S. troops and civilians, and threatened our ally Israel with destruction."I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight. The suspicions run too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect."
To that end, Obama laid out a vision in which Iran is allowed to access peaceful nuclear energy, while the United States insists that the Iranian government "meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty and U.N. Security Council resolutions."
The president, after chiding Tehran for having "evaded its responsibilities in the past," nevertheless said he's been "encouraged" by evidence of possible progress from President Rouhani and others. It's why Obama has agreed to dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue a new agreement with Iran, in "close cooperation" with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China.
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama added.
It's obviously too soon to say whether there will be concrete progress or not, but in case it's not obvious, note that this is, at a minimum, a diplomatic opportunity with Iran unlike anything we've seen in a generation.
It also raises the possibility of a historic handshake.
President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, will be at the United Nations together on Tuesday -- their speeches to the General Assembly book-ending a luncheon for heads of state.If both attend the luncheon -- reports that Rouhani may skip circulated Monday night -- they may break bread in the same room. But any gesture beyond that would be historic for two countries whose leaders have not met in three decades."It would be unprecedented for the Iranian president to even shake hands with the U.S. president and vice versa," said Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American author and commentator. "It's possible that will happen this time around. Somebody would have to seek out the other party."
I wouldn't want to make too much out a literal handshake -- if it happens, that doesn't mean diplomatic progress is assured; if it doesn't happen, no one should interpret this as some kind of important setback.
But given the developments of the last several decades, the possibility of even cursory interaction between the two leaders is fascinating.