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 Monitor has 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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