NEW YORK - Handshake or no handshake, Hassan Rowhani owes Barack Obama a debt of gratitude. That is because Rowhani is the president of the Iran that American sanctions made happen.
After listening to him field questions from American media luminaries (and some not-so-luminous types like myself) for over an hour Wednesday morning, it was striking that, as the meeting closed, the biggest question of all remained the one posed by his very presence, his tenor, and the message he sought to deliver: What kind of change does he represent from the intemperate, combative, rogue Iran of the Ahmadinejad years?
Rowhani is no transformational figure . . . at least not yet. He is a self-defined moderate and what he has done during his months in office, hype aside, is to focus somewhat on adjusting the tone typically offered by his cartoonish predecessor. The political North Star in Iran remains the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He sets the direction for the country and determines precisely how much leash each president will be given.
Nonetheless, while Iran is far from a democracy, it is a country that contains potent democratic forces. In the last election the country's voters sent a clear message that among the carefully selected candidates the ruling clerics allowed to appear on the ballot, the one voters wanted was the one who had the most chance to repair relations with the outside world as well as end the sanctions that were crushing their economy and making millions of Iranians' lives miserable.
While the mostly off-the-record exchange with Rowhani focused on headline issues - like why there wasn't a meeting between Obama and Rowhani here in New York or what the next step would be with regard to the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world, or whether the new Iranian president really accepted the existence of the Holocaust - the subtext throughout was that the newly elected head of state had a strong desire to do what he could to restore relations between Iran and the world to open up his country to more commerce and spark some degree of economic recovery. To the extent there has been an Iranian charm offensive here at the United Nations General Assembly meetings it might be characterized as "smiling for dollars."
Of course, the secret to getting the economy going again is lifting the international sanctions associated with stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program - a program Rowhani (like his predecessor) still unconvincingly asserts does not exist. When Rowhani noted that it was the White House that reached out to Iran to stage a possible grip-and-grin moment between Obama and Rowhani, he added that there wasn't enough time to develop a plan for a follow-on to the discussion. (That will be the work of Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif when they meet later this week.) But rest assured the plan Iran wants is one that will measure progress in steps to ease the relentless economic pressure the Obama team has put on the Iranians since they took office in 2008.
On another front, while Rowhani's discussion of Syria and other issues at the General Assembly was off the record, it did underscore a growing sense I've gotten from talking with regional leaders and representatives of governments engaged in Syria this week that, as improbable as a deal between the United States and Iran may be, the thinking of key parties has evolved in interesting ways.
While formulations change depending on who you talk to, Bashar Assad's friends may well be preparing to throw him under the bus - with the enthusiastic support of the rest of the international community. Some characterize this as leaving the big decisions about the future of Syrian leadership to the ballot box.
One pro-Western regional leader suggested that in the wake of a Geneva deal and a political settlement, Assad would go but that the Russians could help orchestrate picking a new Alawite face to replace him. In each of my many conversations on the subject, the punch line was the same: no one seems to be making keeping Assad a critical element of a deal. It seems as though he may have gained a momentary respite as a consequence of the current negotiations, but if - as those involved hope - those negotiations lead away from "a chemical weapons deal to a Geneva deal to elections" they will also lead to his departure. As far as the Russians are concerned, this end result may be tolerable provided they can also count on his successor to be a friend in Damascus.
If Assad recognizes this, of course, it may make him less inclined to be serious about negotiations and more inclined to play them out or even delay them, to buy him some time. (For what, I am not sure. This cannot end well for him unless he considers it a victory to spend his life ping-ponging around in exile like Baby Doc Duvalier and other similar ne'er-do-wells.) Predicting Assad's motivations moving forward is just one of the many, many challenges associated with the Syria crisis that makes any deal ultimately look tough - from the number of combatants to the fact that this is not a zero-sum for Syria's president alone. As quid pro quo for Assad's ultimate ouster, it also seems reasonable to expect, based on General Assembly corridor buzz, that the Russians, Iranians and others will demand that al-Qaida, jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah and other Sunni Islamic extremists who have flowed into Syria since the war began, depart the country as well.
This in turn further complicates matters. Because in the eyes of respected long-time regional leaders with good relations with the West, six to 12 more months of fighting may see the strength of the extremists rise to a point where they cannot effectively be defeated. Intervening against them when they were weak - 18 months or a year ago - would have given us a much greater chance of success. Now, with each week that passes, they grow stronger. This is one reason why the calls for the United States to much more actively push back on Turkish and Qatari support for the extremists have grown so urgent. There is a real sense that the president of the United States has a critical behind-the-scenes role to play here but that it is one he has shirked. (One leader suggested that the White House itself seemed clearly split on this issue even today.) It is here that we see that Obama and Rowhani are not just connected by their missed photo op or by the fact that it was Obama's tough sanctions that helped create the conditions for Rowhani's election. Both leaders also illustrate the profound effects modest shifts made by key players who are being driven by domestic politics can have on Mideast regional dynamics.
Hasan Rowhani is not the antithesis of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is not a radical departure from a radical voice. He is modulating the message of a society whose true political power center has hardly changed its position in decades. He is a new face but mostly he is a nuance. The same might be said of Obama. He has, as many have noted, supported many Bush policies, actually turned up the volume of drone, special ops and cyber activity, turned up the pressure via sanctions, and maintained the traditional U.S. ties with Israel, etc. Even his decision to leave Iraq and Afghanistan is one that had its origins in the Bush years. No, in fairness, Obama isn't a transformational figure either, so much as he is making modest changes, leaning back slightly where his predecessor once leaned in further. He will still reserve the right to strike at Iran's nuclear programs if nothing else works and to strike at Syria if chemical weapons talks fail. But the nuance is that he will hesitate more, act in a more limited way, and seek political cover at home and abroad more assiduously. The core policy remains the same - the speed and degree to which he implements is all that will change.
Except of course, as we have seen, such nuances make all the difference in the world. On the one hand they shift America from being viewed, depending on where you are sitting, as either a stalwart or a bully in the region, to being seen as disengaging, more hesitant, or less likely to act. It is a shift that has had high-level Israelis no longer wondering aloud whether Obama will act alongside them to strike Iran but rather whether he would even step in to support Israel the day after such an attack if the Iranians were about to strike them.
This is not a moot point. While Iran and the United States shift slightly, some in the region defy even such adjustments and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu seems to be one of them, warning Americans against falling into the "honey pot" of the Iranian charm offensive. And the Iranians, while their leader may now acknowledge the Holocaust (while coyly leaving open questions about its scope) and while he may send out Rosh Hashanah wishes or bring along the Iranian parliament's representative for the Jews of that country to press events (like he did today), it is clear that the official Iranian position is still to dispute and deny the legitimacy of the Israeli state.
The calculation that must be made now is what the consequences of these measured shifts by the leaders of the United States and Iran may mean. Even after all the media roundtables and hoopla, we are still left with many more questions than answers.
Is there a greater opening for genuinely constructive talks on the Iranian nuclear program? On a lasting political settlement for Syria? To what extent do these openings come primarily from newfound Iranian openness or from a strategically thought out American desire to engage rather than fight? Or do they come more from a momentary Iranian weakness brought about by economic stress or from the fact that the war-weary and war-wary American people and U.S. Congress have taken a lastingly more isolationist turn having said "enough" to the president? How will these changes, whether they come from relative strength or weakness, impact the outcomes that may be engineered or encountered? (It is my sense that the Iranians and the Russians may both be open to pursuing negotiations now, at least as much because they feel a United States that is "leaning away" may be open to a better deal as because of any U.S. saber-rattling re: Syria.) And finally, of course, there is the longer term question as to how all these changes may affect the broader calculus throughout a region in which a U.S.-Iranian hegemonic proxy war has been so central for so long that any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would have profound implications for all the allies and enemies of each of the countries.
The primary conclusion I can draw from this week's meetings in New York and in particular from the postures of Obama and Rowhani - these two presidents whose fates may be so intertwined - is that lingering questions aside, the United States and Iran will both attempt to explore the current shift in mood because it is in the immediate interest of both countries and both leaders to do so. The problem for the United States is that slow, incremental progress alone would be a win-win for the Iranians - buying them time to defuse their economic time bomb even as they also buy time to develop the capability to create bombs of a much different sort. This is a potential trap that President Obama must avoid.
His sanctions may have helped create this opening, but they are only half of a strategy. He must have an endgame, real resolve, healthy skepticism and a hard timetable or the moment he helped engineer will be lost and fears of America's gradually shrinking influence in the region will be compounded.
Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of Foreign Policy. He is the author of "Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power."