Why no Obama Rouhani meeting: White House offered, Iran declined

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New York __ There will be no meeting between President Obama and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani this week, the White House said Tuesday, saying the Iranians had declined.

The White House offered to have “an encounter” between Obama and Rouhani at the United Nations, but the Iranians informed the US Tuesday “it is too complicated for the Iranians to do at this point,” senior US administration officials informed the White House pool reporter Tuesday afternoon.

“It was clear that it was too complicated for them,” a senior US official told the pool reporter.

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday as part of a P5+1 foreign ministers meeting.

Zarif attended and appeared to listen intently to Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday morning, during which Obama said the Iranian people deserve access to peaceful nuclear energy, and said the U.S. does not seek regime change in Iran.

Rouhani however did not attend a lunch for world leaders hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday, which Obama attended, and where some thought a handshake might occur. While some Iranians said Iranian leaders have avoided such UN lunches in the past because wine is served, several Iran experts thought a public encounter with the US president in the spotlight may just be too much for Rouhani at this point.

It may be “too much, too soon,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, an Iran expert at the Asia Society, which is hosting Rouhani Thursday. More important, she said, is the agreement that Kerry and Zarif will pursue a serious attempt at negotiations, which Obama firmly endorsed in his speech.

“I didn’t expect a handshake,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution Saban Center said Tuesday, adding she is “still puzzled as to why both sides seemed to be hyping the possibility of a meeting, or at least didn’t dismiss it.”

“It’s not the right time for a presidential photo op, really,” Maloney said. “This needs to be more ripe to justify inserting the principals.”

“It’s important to note that the process here is what’s important,” a second senior US official said. “It’s the fact that Secretary Kerry is proceeding with P5+1…We were open to a meeting. The president was open to a meeting. But the real work on resolving this issue has to be done through substantive negotiations.”

US officials said they had been able to convey messages about willingness for an encounter to Iran, including through staff contacts in New York, but declined to specify what those were.

“We have an ability to be in touch with the Iranians at a variety of levels,” a US official said. “We’ve been doing that here in New York, and today I think it became apparent that the two leaders having an encounter here on the margins of UNGA was not going to happen.”

“I think the takeaway again is the Iranians #1 have an internal dynamic that they have to manage,” the official continued. “The relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other Western countries even.”

“Now we see a real opening here for a diplomatic process, and that’s going to be carried forward by Secretary Kerry meeting with his counterpart , which is a significant elevation of the level that that exchange is taking place again through that P5+1 process,” the official said. “But again the Iranians at this point were not ready to have an encounter at the presidential level.”

(Photo of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressing the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday September 24, 2013. Laura Rozen.)

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