After a flurry of diplomatic smoke signals, Iran and the US are sizing up the gamble of a presidential close encounter at the UN next week that could open a first crack in 30 years of enmity.
In letters, statements, television interviews and even tweets, both sides have been gingerly testing attitudes and appetites for detente on either side of their metaphorical iron curtain.
With no diplomatic relations, the enemies can only communicate over the airwaves or through intermediaries, but that could change at the UN General Assembly.
Neither side is ruling out what would be a historic first handshake between the presidents of the Islamic Republic and the US.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a conservative with a pragmatic political streak, was elected in June promising to ease the nation’s tortured foreign relations and US-led sanctions that buckled its economy in a bid to punish a nuclear drive.
Rouhani, who was offered “flexibility” in negotiations by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has spurred curiosity in Washington, which is mustering for a new round of so far fruitless nuclear diplomacy between Iran and world powers.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama is promising to test Rouhani’s seriousness and the political space he has back home to talk with the American “Great Satan.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney, sending his own signal toward Tehran, said “lots of interesting things” were coming out of Tehran.
Obama and Rouhani have both acknowledged in interviews that they have exchanged letters, prompting hopes they may stage a show of mutual respect in the UN corridors of power.
However, even a brief handshake would represent a political gamble by both men, could backfire with critics and cause diplomatic blushes if the choreography goes wrong.
“There has been a lot of talk, back and forth, about something informal -—a handshake, a brief exchange of greetings in a hallway — it could happen, but it may not happen,” said Jim Walsh, a research associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program.
“There is risk for both sides — it waves a red flag to domestic opponents back in Tehran and Washington,” he said.
The White House says there are no meetings scheduled between Rouhani and Obama, but has repeatedly declined to rule out a face-to-face chat.
Rouhani took a similar tack in an NBC interview broadcast, saying: “Qnything is possible in the world of politics.”
Karl Inderfurth, a former US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said that some kind of “pull aside” between Obama and Rouhani was possible at the UN —but counseled that the Iranians should be allowed to dictate the running, as hardliners were ready to pounce.
“The US has to be very careful that it doesn’t make President Rouhani’s life more difficult back in Tehran,” Inderfurth said.
One of the reasons why talk of an Obama-Rouhani meeting has generated so much excitement is because it is a reversal of the usual Iranian sideshow at the UN: former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tirades against Israel.
Like Rouhani, Obama faces domestic constraints.
The glowing foreign policy record Obama touted in his re-election race was sullied by public agonizing over Egypt and a stumbling initial response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack.
Some skeptical Democrats and hawkish Republicans warn that Rouhani’s charm offensive is a ruse to drag out nuclear talks and get Tehran closer to the atomic bomb that it denies coveting.
Obama, pilloried on the 2008 campaign trail for offering to sit down with US enemies, will also remember the backlash sparked when he shook hands with late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
However, some Iran watchers say that even a quick meeting between Obama and Rouhani could offer the stop-start talks between the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Iran, a jolt of momentum before their expected resumption within weeks.
Washington and Iran also have much to discuss on Syria — where they are backing rival sides in the brutal civil war.
As they weigh the risks of a meeting, Obama and Rouhani must also consider the flipside — that a chance not taken may not come again.
In 2000, US president Bill Clinton went to the UN hoping to meet then-Iranian president Mohammad Khatami at another elusive moment of promise in the Washington-Tehran chill.
The encounter that had been expected never happened — leaving bruised feelings on both sides.
Within months, hopes of a breakthrough were crushed with hardliners again on the rise in Tehran.