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No handshake--but can Iran-U.S. relations shift?

By Saeed Shabazz -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Oct 1, 2013 - 10:14:03 AM

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UNITED NATIONS ( - An anticipated handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani didn’t happen, but tweets and positive statements renewed hope the two countries might move toward better relations.

The excitement around the 68th General Assembly at the United Nations—where President Obama and President Rouhani did not meet—was given a cold chill Sept. 30 by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with President Obama in Washington. The Israelis aren’t thrilled about new possible rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. They want the U.S. to move slowly in easing up on a country Israel sees as a regional enemy

“Following a relative easing of tension between U.S. and Iranian leaders last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off to the U.S. in a bid to convince the Obama administration to keep war on the table despite Iran’s seemingly conciliatory new leadership,” reported Sept. 30.

“Netanyahu met U.S. President Barack Obama for lunch at the White House on Monday, while protesters outside chanted ‘try Bibi for war crimes’ in reference to the Israel’s ongoing treatment of Palestinians. During the meeting Netanyahu urged Obama to keep sanctions in place against Iran, if not strengthen them, and to keep war an active option against the country.

“In lockstep with his Israeli counterpart Obama vowed to keep all options on the table, including the possibility of a military response to Tehran,” the progressive news site continued.

A private meeting Sept. 26 at the United Nations was held between John Kerry, President Obama’s secretary of state, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After the sit down and a reported discussion about future talks and Iran’s nuclear program, the presidents engaged in phone calls, a first direct contact at that level in over 30 years.

According to IRNA, the official Iranian news agency, President Obama placed the call while President Rouhani traveled to Kennedy Airport. The two presidents reportedly exchanged viewpoints including cooperation on different regional issues.

“This could be the beginning of something positive,” Bill Fletcher, Jr. human rights activist and a senior policy scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies told The Final Call, adding, “You hear Iran saying—we want to talk—we want to move away from the rhetoric of our last administration.”

“It can hopefully be a first step towards serious negotiations,” said Prof. Stephen Zunes, coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco in an e-mail to The Final Call.

“Unfortunately, both presidents are being pressured by hawks within their country who oppose any compromise,” Prof. Zunes said. Mr. Fletcher agreed: “In the U.S. it’s the Zionist lobby and certain hawks that remain focused on punishing Iran and to prevent them from playing a major role in the region.”

Both presidents are pragmatists, argued Prof. Zunes. “As much as they disagree on the nuclear weapon question and on other issues relevant to U.S.-Iranian relations, they realize that the current standoff does neither side much good,” he said.

The U.S., Israel and their allies accuse Iran of pursuing military aims with its nuclear energy programs. Iran rejects the charges, arguing it has the right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

On Sept. 24, UN watchers listened and recorded every word from two of the most widely awaited speeches in General Assembly history.

Some experts in international relations described both messages as very cautious: President Obama used a sober tone mentioning Iran 25 times during his address, but aimed no new salvos at Tehran. President Rouhani’s tone reflected “détente,” and a need for normalization of relations with the U.S. and relief from sanctions.

Some analysts say Iran changed its style and tone, offering itself as a stable regional power.

President Rouhani, elected in June reportedly told reporters assembled at a Manhattan hotel for his press conference Sept. 27 that Al-Qaeda must leave Syria, the Taliban’s view on women was outdated, and that he brought with him a member of the Jewish minority living in Tehran.

“We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course,” President Obama said in a White House statement. President Rouhani said the tone of President Obama’s speech was different.

The new Iranian president and his foreign minister appeared at a forum at the Manhattan-based Council for Foreign Relations on Sept. 26. Concerning the nuclear issue, President Rouhani said all knew the “chief agitator” painting Iran as a “threatening” force was Israel.

“We know also that this claim fluctuates in proportion to the size of the international pressure to stop the settlement activity and end the occupation of Palestinian lands,” President Rouhani said.

On the Holocaust, he added, “I have explained that we condemn the crimes by Nazis in World War II and regrettably those crimes were committed against many groups, many people were killed including a group of Jewish people.”

Foreign Minister Zarif announced at the forum that Iran had agreed to “jumpstart” talks concerning his nation’s nuclear program that must take place in a year’s time.

A  Sept. 27 press release from the U.S. State Dept. announced Oct. 15-16 as the meeting day for the U.S. and Iran as a first step towards more formal discussions at the ministerial level.

“We here in the U.S., at the grassroots level, must press the administration to move forward with normalizing relations with Iran,” Mr. Fletcher said. A war against Iran would mean boots on the ground—our sons and daughters, he said.