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Behind The Missing Obama-Rouhani Handshake

Zarif during Iranian parliament debate of the nuclear agreement with the West.
Zarif during Iranian parliament debate of the nuclear agreement with the West.

TEHRAN Iranian legislators questioned Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about why he had shaken hands last month with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The gesture was viewed by many as another positive sign of Iran's thawing relations with the West, but has irritated the country's conservatives opposed to improved ties with the United States. Indeed, after decades between Tehran and Washington, some hardliners have called for Zarif's resignation in the wake of the Obama handshake.

But in the Tuesday hearing, Zarif told the chamber's national security committee that his handshake hadn't really been meant for him, because President Obama had actually sought to shake hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the reformist daily Aftab-e Yazd reported, citing the semi-official ISNA agency.

Zarif was being questioned Tuesday, ahead of parliament's preliminary approval of Iran's nuclear pact with the West, against the bitter opposition of a conservative minority.

The country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently declared that beyond the accord, Iran should not negotiate anything with the Americans, effectively fueling conservative opposition to any rapprochement.

Zarif said President Obama "seemed to be planning to shake hands not with me, but with President Rouhani," following a General Assembly session in late September.

"So my shaking hands with the U.S. president was coincidental, but the Americans had plans to face the Iranian president, which of course didn't happen," the foreign minister said. "What I did was in keeping with Islamic courtesy. Mr Obama came toward me and extended his hand, and it all took about a minute."

Al Monitorhas reported that the Iranian delegation specifically avoided having Rouhani anywhere near Obama during the UN meetings to be sure no presidential greeting might occur.

The questioning of Zarif was relatively mild compared to the rowdy parliamentary session on Oct. 11, when one MP hardliner threatened to kill one of Iran's nuclear negotiators and head of the Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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