President Obama used his annual address to the United Nations on Tuesday to say he sees an opening for diplomacy with Iran and would pursue a deal to stop the Islamic republic's pursuit of nuclear weapons — but his words were soon overshadowed by the handshake that wasn't.
New Iranian President Hasan Rouhani rejected a White House invitation for a brief meeting with Mr. Obama, an American olive branch designed to move the two countries beyond their adversarial positions and toward peace. The administration later claimed that Iranian officials thought it was "too complicated" to be seen meeting with the U.S. and that the conversation, no matter how short, would have posed political problems back home for Mr. Rouhani.
Hours after the snub, the Iranian leader took to the U.N. stage and, while expressing openness to diplomacy with the U.S., blasted "warmongers" around the world and stated flatly that "Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region."
The whirlwind day — which included a late-afternoon briefing by senior White House officials to defend their invite to Mr. Rouhani — has diverted much of the attention away from Iran's nuclear ambitions. The spotlight instead shifted to the prospect of a face-to-face meeting between the presidents.
That, analysts say, is exactly what Iran wanted.
"Power politics is much more exciting than nuclear physics. Rouhani's play is to obscure the nuclear physics behind a cloud of personalities and pieties, because who really wants to sit down and go through the excruciating detail of the dangers of Iran" and its growing nuclear capability, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
He said Mr. Rouhani is "counting on" being able to turn attention away from his country's nuclear ambitions and to the man-to-man interactions — or lack thereof — between himself and Mr. Obama.