First there was the 2013 telephone conversation between Presidents Obama and Rouhani during Rouhani’s visit to New York, which met with outrage from Iran's hardliners. Two years on, the “unplanned” handshake between Obama and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has angered them once again.
Whether it was planned or not, many commentators have already characterized the handshake at the United Nations building on Tuesday, September 29 as historic. Hardliners wasted no time and quickly dismissed it as “improper” — as well as referring to comments made by the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei following the famous 2013 phone conversation as back up. At the time, Khamenei did not directly refer to the conversation, but he did give hardliners enough to use to their advantage, saying that certain events during Rouhani’s New York trip had been “inappropriate”.
Ahead of the Iranian delegation’s most recent trip, the Iranian media widely anticipated that it would be Rouhani who would shake hands with Obama, signaling a sea change in relations between the two countries.
But this scenario was pretty much impossible, given one major obstacle.
Earlier this year, as nuclear negotiations really began to take shape , Ayatollah Khamenei announced that it was acceptable for Iranian officials up to the level of foreign affairs minister to interact with US officials. With this in mind, if Rouhani had actually shaken hands with Obama, this would have been interpreted by many hardliners as a direct snub to the Supreme Leader — a red line that he was wise not to cross.
Zarif, on the contrary, did not cross a red line. The official Islamic Republic News Agency dispelled rumors that the handshake had been orchestrated, quoting an Iranian official who said such speculation was baseless.
But this did not mollify the hardliners.
One of the first to come forward was Mansour Haghighatpour, a member of parliament’s National Security Committee. “We hoped that the news would not be confirmed,” he said, “because if Mr. Zarif has done such a thing then he has ignored the regime’s red lines.” He said the gesture would not go unnoticed by the Iranian public or their representatives. “America is still an enemy of the Iranian nation and is persistent in its hostility, so shaking hands with the enemy is against the foundations of the revolution and contrary to the rights of the country.” Haghighatpour demanded an apology from Zarif.
This outrage manifested itself in a variety of ways. Nader Ghazipour, an MP from Urmia, called on President Rouhani to punish Zarif. The MP Fouad Izadi, a harsh critic of the nuclear agreement, tried to cover huge ground while handing out his criticism of Zarif. “The handshake is not the main or the real problem,” he told Tasnim News Agency. “The real issue is Iranian foreign policy, which is conducted in a way to make American officials happy. Shaking hands with these criminals is giving them undue prestige.”
Nefarious Intentions and Danger Signals
Hardliner media could detect nefarious intentions behind the handshake, which they believed signaled a dangerous move toward normalizing relations with the enemy. Fars News Agency, a mouthpiece for the Revolutionary Guards, reminded its readers that in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton and Cuban leader Fidel Castro met each other by pure chance at the UN. The leaders shook hands — and two decades later, the world witnessed a rapprochement of sorts between Cuba and the US. This echoed Obama’s discussion of Cuba at the UN this week, which was followed up with a reference to relations with Iran.
Hardliners have accused Zarif of such criminal activity — encouraging better relations with the US — before. When Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif took a stroll together during nuclear negotiations in Geneva, a gesture that received widespread media coverage, hardliners warned of a “creeping” normalization between the two countries.
Before Zarif left for the UN, a number of hardliner media outlets reported that he had received orders not to accept telephone calls from Kerry. But of course, during his time in New York, Zarif did meet Kerry. This, coupled with the evil handshake, has been seen as one part of a long-term plan. According to their memory of events, the supreme leader had issued a firm warning about the creeping influence of the West following the nuclear deal. It followed that what Zarif did was unforgivable. It should not be tolerated, hardliners argued.
And, in their view, the handshake was not Zarif’s only sin during his New York stay. He requested a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, a meeting that did not take place — but seeking one out was bad enough. He did, however, meet with a Kuwaiti amir regarding mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But as bad as these sins were, they were overshadowed by that handshake.
The day after the big sin, hardliners had time to prepare for their next steps. When parliament opened for business, the MP for Borujerd, Bahram Biravand, objected to the “business as usual” mentality, and began chants of “Death to America!” A few other MPs joined in. He then proceeded to deliver a passionate speech condemning Zarif. He accused the foreign minister of “yearning to kiss the cheeks of Obama and Kerry” and said he should resign if he was going to continue to behave in such a way. “At a time when hundreds of Iranian Hajj pilgrims have gone to their graves or are missing, Zarif throws himself into the arms of Obama...He doesn't even have as much honor as a baby rooster…Iran will never yield to America.”
Abu Torabi, parliament’s Deputy Speaker, tried to defend Zarif, and the rogue MP Ali Motahari, who has been a thorn in the side of hardliners for a long time, defended him in a press conference. “It is not important that an Iranian official has shaken hands with Obama,” he said. “The important thing is that we stand by our ideals, including on the Palestinian issue. The representative who committed the insult [Biravand] must be asked, ‘why do you disrespect an individual whom the supreme leader trusts? Shaking hands with Obama is not the same thing as US influence in Iran.”
But this defence had no impact: Hardliners continued, “It was said that Mr. Rouhani talked to Obama ‘by accident,’” complained Hamid Resaee MP. “Last year Mr. Zarif took a walk with the US Secretary John Kerry by accident, and this year they say that Zarif and Obama met by accident. Next year I am sure they will say that they embraced and kissed each other’s cheeks by accident.”
There was much more, and there will be more to come. Hardliners are doing everything they can to damage the reputation and standing of Zarif, Rouhani, and the administration. The handshake is an easy target and will not be forgotten.
The next question is: How will the supreme leader respond? Will he let his underlings fight it out? Will he help Zarif, perhaps by saying something positive and complimentary about him so hardliners take notice? Or will he come out saying that, once again, Zarif has behaved in an inappropriate manner?
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