President Obama might shake hands and and meet up with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly this week. This would be the first meeting between an American and Iranian leader since Jimmy Carter met with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran's Shah, in 1977. Obama said he would be open to meeting with Iranian leaders without preconditions in 2007, and was widely criticized for it.
(Update: As we wait for word on the possible meeting between Obama and Rouhani, the European Union's foreign policy chief has announced that Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and diplomatic representatives from five other major powers will meet Thursday to further negotiate Iran's nuclear policy, The Wall Street Journal reports. These will be the first nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran since Rouhani took office this June, and the highest level formal meeting between the two countries since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.)
As of now there are no plans for the two to meet, but Iran's more moderate president has been waving a friendship banner at the states leading up to the UN meeting. In an op-ed column for The Washington Post last week, Rouhani called for the U.S. and Iran to "work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart." For its part, the White House said on Thursday that it's "willing to have that meeting … provided that Iran demonstrates a seriousness about dealing with its nuclear weapons program."
And while both sides of the table seem to be genuinely meeting to meet, politics might get in the way. The UN meeting comes in the midst of the Syria controversy, and the Obama administration's less than smooth handling of it. As The New York Times and others have noted, one of the stronger arguments for striking Syria was to deter Iran from further developing its nuclear weapons program. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will warn the UN next week that Iran could be setting a trap on a nuclear deal just like North Korea did eight years ago. And the irony of Obama meeting with a country we're less than friendly with while congressional Republicans threaten to shut down the government hasn't been overlooked. "Odd week. Obama more likely to meet with Hassan Rouhani than John Boehner," ABC News' Rick Klein tweeted.
At the same time, recent changes in leadership have given the West hope for a new relationship with Iran. Earlier this month the country's foreign minister tweeted "Happy Rosh Hashanah" to the world's Jews. And while the ultimate say on foreign policy rests with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rouhani has expressed interest in more transparent nuclear weapons talk
According to The New York Times earlier this month, there's even the possibility of a secret back channel diplomacy relationship between Washington and Tehran. In August, a high level state department official also visited the minister last month to discuss the outcomes of a possible airstrike on Syria. Regardless of America's current relationship with Iran, we'd have a common enemy in Syria if jihadists came to power. The U.S. doesn't have a viable plan B if diplomacy doesn't get Syria's chemical weapons out before the potential fall of the Assad regime, and a working relationship with Iran might look pretty good at that point.