Rouhani and Obama set to make history

A different foreign policy approach will be a welcome relief to many Iranians, tired of being an international pariah.

Pickets and walk-outs at the UN, controversy and belligerence. Words that could aptly describe the previous speeches and attendance of the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the UN General Assembly. There are still pickets planned, by Iranian right-wingers and members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalk, a formerly terrorist-listed group. No doubt Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also walk out.

But one simple action will make it all irrelevant – a handshake between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his US counterpart, Barack Obama.

Rouhani has talked about a different approach for the past two months since his election as president. In the past week, his comments have become stronger and more determined. Iran will talk to the US, Iran wants to solve the disputes between the country and the rest of the world, and will use diplomacy and respect in doing so.

In Iran, it’s difficult to be an optimist. Burdened with the bitter taste of reality, of more than a century of hypocrisy, broken promises, invasion and warmongering. But one can’t help but feel the shift – from analysts to the average man on the street – that change is coming.

It’s really only the hardliners who are now worried about change – and what it could mean for them – both in the US and Iran. They all benefit from having the “big bad” monster out there.

But most Iranians believe Rouhani is sincere in his statements and now, most importantly, he has the green light from Iran’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, to show more flexibility. But perhaps the biggest worry for Iranians is what the US will do. Will Obama actually meet Rouhani? And do it in public? And what will that even mean?

There are no official polls, but it seems most Iranians want it to happen, as one younger researcher told me, “to show the world Iran is peaceful”. And better ties between the US and Iran is not a surprise. It’s been on the cards for months – and it’s been one of the most discussed topics in Iran since Rouhani started campaigning for the presidency in May.

Iranians Al Jazeera have spoken to are resigned to the inevitable fact it will happen – that two bitter enemies will come in from the cold – and it’s been a long, tiresome road for Iranians to even get to such a resignation.

With a deep sigh, one man in downtown Tehran told me that is has to happen. He just didn’t know when. He said Iranians are tired of the bitterness, of the disputes that have contributed to Iran’s current position as the world’s favourite pariah. And so many others have reflected these statements in the last two months.

If such a meeting happens, both Obama and Rouhani will go down in history – even if nothing substantial eventuates, even if the wheels fall off, if issues like Syria and Iran’s nuclear programme muddy the waters.

But the problem is this: the expectations are now so high, there are so many positive signs and words, that anything other than the smallest of gestures will be a defeat. The act itself is not done. And that very simple moment in history, is what’s going to determine if two men, two countries, actually have the bravery, not just to acknowledge that the past is gone – but to potentially change the world.

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