Who would broker an Obama-Rouhani encounter in NY?

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If President Obama decides to try to pursue a handshake or encounter with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in New York next week, odds are it may occur when he meets with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday, before attending a lunch hosted by Ban, a veteran of US-Iran dialogues suggested Friday.

“There is a range of potential interlocutors to coordinate such an encounter,” Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy studies at the Asia Society, told the Back Channel Friday. “Ban Ki-Moon is hosting a Tuesday lunch. That would be [ideal], given he’s an international civil servant.”

No meeting between Obama and Rouhani next week is currently planned, though Obama is open to engagement, the White House said again Friday. Obama is currently scheduled to have four one-on-one meetings with world leaders in New York, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told journalists in a call Friday previewing Obama’s schedule in New York.

Obama will meet on Monday with Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, and then on Tuesday, following his address to the UN General Assembly, Obama is due to meet with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman. Obama is then due to meet privately with the UN’s Ban, then attend a lunch hosted by Ban, Rhodes said. Finally, Obama is due to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, before attending a Clinton Global Initiative event promoting health care hosted by former President Bill Clinton.

Given that schedule, it seems most likely that, if an encounter between Obama and Rouhani were to occur, it would be brokered by Ban, DiMaggio mused. Her organization, the Asia Society, is due to host Rouhani at an event Thursday for think tank scholars, along with the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also been involved in extensive track 2 work on Iran.

There are rumors that Ban might also organize a meeting of foreign ministers, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, DiMaggio said.

“There’s some creative thinking going on,” she said.

There could be some US-Iran “interaction at different levels”, the NSC’s Rhodes said in the press call Friday. “I can’t predict every interaction that might take place.”

More important, perhaps, than even the prospect of a much-rumored Obama-Rouhani handshake, DiMaggio said, is that Obama recognize the risk Rouhani is taking with pushing engagement with the US.

“If Obama and Rouhani shake hands on the margins of the UNGA, of course that would be very positive,” DiMaggio said. “But I think it’s very important to remember that Rouhani is taking an incredible risk by taking such a big bet on engagement with the US, especially so early in his term. But the payoff could be enormous.”

If Obama, “during his UNGA speech, conveyed the US is prepared to accept Iran with a peaceful nuclear energy program, if Rouhani could take that home,” that would give him a boost against his hardline critics, DiMaggio said. It would show “the US is willing to be flexible on this issue.”