Obama and Rouhani both spoke Tuesday at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and could have arranged an informal encounter at a luncheon for leaders hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The Americans reached out to propose such a brief meeting, Rouhani told media executives Wednesday.
But the timing was not right, and there was too much at stake to squander the chance, Rouhani said.
“If we do not take our first steps carefully, we may not at the very least be able to obtain mutual goals that are in our minds,” Rouhani said through an interpreter.
In the same session, Rouhani called the Holocaust “a massacre of the Jews by the Nazis,” in contrast to past Iranian statements that cast doubt on the historical event that led to the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state. Iran officially considers Israel illegitimate.
Although Rouhani said Iran completely condemns the Holocaust, he said it is important that victims “not seek compensation by victimizing other groups.”
That was a reference to Palestinians displaced by Israel’s founding and to Israel’s occupation of West Bank land that the Palestinians seek for an independent state.
Rouhani would not address what he called the “scale and numbers” of the Holocaust. “Why don’t we just leave that to the experts?” he said.
The American explanation for why an Obama-Rouhani breakthrough did not come about this week was that it became clear that domestic politics in Iran prevented Rouhani from making a bold move. U.S. officials said Tuesday that despite some promising early exchanges with Iran’s U.N. mission, it was “too complicated” for Rouhani to proceed.
A handshake, simple as it might seem, would have been the first direct contact between a U.S. president and an Iranian leader since the Carter administration. It would have signaled the first real progress on Obama’s campaign offer to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Rouhani is working to present a more reasonable face to the world than his predecessor as president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani, a relative moderate, won a surprise election victory in June. He appears to have the backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his effort to improve Iranian relations with the United States and resume more meaningful negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
Letters exchanged between Obama and Rouhani encouraged observers in both countries that progress was possible. U.S. officials did nothing to discourage speculation about a meeting at the United Nations.
“I believe we did not have enough time to make it happen,” Rouhani said Wednesday.