In the present case, Zarif’s fleeting physical contact with the American executive has been met with outrage from ultra-conservative members of parliament and hardline student groups affiliated with the nation’s basij civilian militia, a subdivision of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Express Tribune reports that MP Mansour Haghighatpour described the handshake as a violation of “one of the system’s red lines.” And The Guardian points out that another MP, Hamid Rasaei posted a picture to Instagram depicting a human hand shaking that of a devil, in reference to basij statements that Zarif had shaken hands with “the Great Satan.”
Recent speeches by high ranking Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have continued to refer to the US by this moniker, thus raising concerns among commentators and analysts about the real prospects for rapprochement between the two countries. These prospects may also be diminished by the fact that it was only the Iranian Foreign Minister who committed this supposed offense, and not the president.
There was some question about whether Rouhani and Obama would meet in person on the occasion of the UN General Assembly, thus building upon the supposed good will that was demonstrated by their shared phone call in 2013. There was similar speculation at last year’s General Assembly, but then as now, the Iranian executive departed without a meeting. In the present case, his premature exit was attributed to his needing to return to Iran after a rise in the death toll of Iranians at last week’s hajj stampede.
But as Reuters reports, this did not stop Rouhani from meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinging on the sidelines of the gathering, in order to discuss potential expansions in trade and foreign policy collaboration following the implementation of the nuclear agreement. Not only does this raise suspicion that Rouhani’s avoidance of Obama was deliberate, it recalls attention to the growing alliances in the East, partly centered around Tehran and possibly leading to coordinated opposition to Western interests.
This would certainly be in keeping with the anti-Western rhetoric coming out of Tehran, of which the criticism of Zarif’s handshake is only one example. For its part, the Foreign Ministry made no effort to push back against this hardline criticism. The Guardian and the Express Tribune both report that officials attempted to portray the incident as an “accident” resulting from Zarif unexpectedly crossing Obama’s path when exiting the room.
Such willingness to defer to the hardline ideology regarding Iranian-Western relations undermines the notion that the Rouhani, Zarif, and other members of the current presidential administration are relative moderates. The National Council of Resistance of Iran has repeatedly issued statements over the previous two years insisting that the members of that administration are long-standing regime insiders, with Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi having even presided over the kangaroo courts that sent upwards of 30,000 political dissidents to the gallows in the summer of 1988.
In other words, critics of the regime allege that it is no different under the Rouhani presidency than it was under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or at any other period since 1979. This same sentiment was expressed on Tuesday by the wife of a political prisoner held in Iran as punishment for practicing his Christian faith. Pastor Saeed Abedini is one of three American citizens being held captive in the Islamic Republic, where a fourth is also believed to have been held in secret since 2007.
Abedini’s wife Naghmeh reiterated that the regime appears to be holding her husband and the other as a form of collateral. This view of the situation was given even greater credibility on Monday when it was reported that Rouhani had called for the release of 19 Iranian citizens held by the US for violations of economic sanctions. Rouhani went on to say that if this demand was met, the environment would be right for Tehran to consider releasing the three acknowledged American prisoners.
Naghmeh Abedini declared that this attempt at bargaining with the lives of foreign nationals “demonstrates that the Iran of today is no different than the Iran who took Americans hostage during the Iranian revolution.” This view has been endorsed by other advocates for the American prisoners. Fox News reports that Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Abedini’s family, said that Rouhani’s comments cannot be trusted, even as insubstantial as those comments already are.
“The comments from Iran’s president are just that — comments made by a regime that simply cannot be trusted,” Sekulow said, hinting at the deep concerns that the regime’s critics have about a policy of rapprochement aimed at a regime with an apparently undiminished commitment to animosity toward the West.