Having celebrated the value of making credible military threats, asserted the United State’s self-declared right to conduct military action without the sanction of the UN Security Council, and reasserted America’s commitment to use all necessary means including military force to ensure the free flow of oil out of the Middle East, President Obama offered to shake hands with the president of the country that has most often been threatened by U.S. strikes: Iran.
The Iranians tactfully declined providing Obama with his photo opportunity, satisfied that an opportunity for substantive contact has already been arranged through a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif scheduled to take place on Thursday.
A handshake can be historic if it actually means something — which is to say, means something more than simply a willingness to shake hands. In and of itself, a handshake with Obama is worth precisely nothing.
If anything, perhaps the most significant thing about the-handshake-that-didn’t-happen is the way the White House has mishandled the event. Having reached out to the Iranians and found that they aren’t ready, the artful diplomatic course would have been to say nothing and deflect questions about whether such a meeting would take place. Instead, by essentially saying we reached out to them but they didn’t reciprocate, Washington puts Tehran on the defense and the Americans end up looking like they were just trying to score points.
In his speech at the UN, Obama expressed the hope that the United States and Iran can develop a new relationship — “one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” At the very same time, he asserted America’s status as a superpower and demanded that Iran bow to external pressure.
Neither individuals nor states can lay claim to coercive power and simultaneously claim they have an interest in developing a respectful relationship with those who they are currently trying to push around.