Two things seem clear from Hassan Rouhani's excellent adventure in New York City this week. First, something new is afoot. No Iranian president in 34 years has spoken so pragmatically or appeared so keen for a deal with the West as this one. Nor has an Iranian foreign minister met with his American counterpart, as Mohammad Javad Zarif did with John Kerry on Thursday—much less announce afterward that nuclear negotiations will begin in three weeks, with a mutually set goal of finalizing an accord within a year. If all this is a ruse, it's a baroquely elaborate one.
But, second, this high-speed high-wire act—while potentially triumphant—is fraught with risk; it's a bold but delicate business.
The first loud signal that Rouhani might not be a Persian replay of Mikhail Gorbachev, as his advance team had led many Westerners to hope, came when he ignored the message from the White House that during a break at the U.N. General Assembly President Obama would be open to an "encounter"—a handshake in a hallway, maybe a brief chat on the side.
No, this wasn't a "snubbing," as critics of both presidents snarled (or, in the case of Obama's critics, jeered). But it probably did indicate that, when it comes to bargaining away his country's nuclear program, Rouhani has less latitude than he'd been suggesting in his pre-trip rhetoric. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have let him give peace talks a chance, especially if they resulted in an easing of economic sanctions. But these talks would be formal, which is to say observable by aides (some of them likely Khamenei's agents) around the table. There were to be no private whispers with an American president. (Rouhani, when he wants to, speaks fluent English.)