Reading about the ridiculous US-Iran diplomatic choreography that played out or did not play out at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) yesterday, the first thought that came to me was to tell the men involved to grow up.
The broad debate surrounding the so-called Iranian snub of America or the American cold shoulder to Iran is laughably about who offered a handshake and who spurned it. Did President Barack Obama come across as too clingy and Iran’s newly minted President Hassan Rouhani shunned him saying ‘Not now’? Or was it that Rouhani was too needy and Obama gave him the silent treatment? These are the two main questions being asked. Excuse the exaggerated tone but it does capture the essence of the diplomatic tease that went down.
The overriding opinion here seems to be that President Obama got played by the crafty man from Asia even as a White House official was quoted as saying, “Ultimately it became clear that that was too complicated for them at this time.” The official also added that “the Iranians, number one, have an internal dynamic that they have to manage” and they “were not ready to have an encounter at the presidential level.”
On the other hand the Iranians explained it thus: “The assumption that a meeting per se could be decisive or help solve problems is absolutely wrong,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was quoted as saying. “We think that we should wait until a proper time for such a meeting comes.”
As is always the case, the truth depends on your vantage point and what you have been primed for. Who snubbed whom after who courted whom is the kind of question that will never be answered truthfully. That is because the truth is always carefully arranged and embellished in such matters. The only thing that we do know for certain is that Obama and Rouhani did not meet. Or did they and we don’t know? Who knows? They could have had a hush-hush meeting which would never be confirmed after both parties mutually agreed to keep it so.
It is best to go by the official version here which is that they did not meet for whatever reasons. Should they have met? Those who still firmly hang on to the antiquated notion that a meeting with the U.S. president is a rare gift afforded to the chosen few would say not. There is a tendency to cast such personal meetings in aural terms. That is precisely why you have such ridiculous gestures as the U.S. president “dropping by” in on a dignitary visiting the White House whom he does not want to elevate with a formal meeting in the Oval Office. It has happened to the Dalai Lama, for instance, in keeping with the White House being mindful of not offending China even while not wanting to be a discourteous host. There is pathetic symbolism to the place where meetings take place.
There were reports that the fastidious minders on both sides would work out a plan where Obama and Rouhani’s paths would accidentally cross at the U.N. headquarters in a way that the two men would exchange pleasantries and possibly shake hands. An administration official was quoted as saying, “An “encounter” would be permissible. Not a long one, but an “informal, brief encounter.” It was not clear though whether they would actually shake hands or merely touch the tips of their index fingers. It is as if any kind of physical contact would lead to a transference of unverifiable but potentially dangerous disease.
It would be so much simpler if world leaders just met and talked more rather than wasting time over such trivialities. Speaking of that, at least India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken a clear stand by deciding to meet Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, possibly on September 29 on the sidelines of the UNGA. Singh is scheduled to meet Obama on September 27 in Washington. Of course, no one expects any breakthrough out of the Singh-Sharif meeting but that it is taking place at all is seen as important. The two countries have had so many issues for so long that oftentimes the leaders from either side forget exactly what it is that they are fighting over in their latest round.
With the 2014 parliamentary elections looming in India, one can be almost certain that the Singh-Sharif meeting will not be much more than a warm neighborly exchange. I think the two men should talk in chaste Punjabi which may produce better results than English.