A now-famous handshake between President Barack Obama and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif at the United Nations on Monday was no accident, although their chance meeting was not pre-planned.
The gesture has become the subject of international analysis and criticism with Iranian hardliners calling Zarif “unrevolutionary” and comparing the act to shaking hands with the devil.
A conservative member of Iran’s parliament, Hamid Rasaee, posted an image to his Instagram account depicting his own version of the historic exchange:
According to several sources, the Iranian delegation had exited to follow President Hassan Rouhani after he spoke to the UN General Assembly. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama exited in a similar fashion but through a different door, which is when the two parties reportedly met impromptu style.
Obama and Zarif then reportedly spoke for about two minutes — smiles were exchanged — and shook hands.
The story is said to have been first reported by Kambiz Foroohar of Bloomberg News.
— kambiz foroohar (@kambizf) September 29, 2015
The handshake is the first of its kind between a U.S. president and a top Iranian official since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Zarif, who has spent a significant amount of time living and studying in the U.S., is familiar with the culture here and is aware that shaking hands is a common gesture. “For Iranians, shaking hands is a sign of friendship, so they read much more into shaking hands with American politicians than people in the U.S. do,” Iranian journalist and analyst Omid Memarian, who lives in New York, told Breitbart News. He said “what Zarif did was very symbolic and I see it as a move forward to break the taboos” in Iranian society.
Back home in Iran, Zarif’s gesture was met with opposition by the Islamic Republic’s hardliners. “We hope this news is not confirmed because if Mr. Zarif has done such a thing, he has definitely ignored the system’s red lines,” lawmaker Mansour Haghighatpour was quoted as saying by the Tasnim News Agency.
The AFP reports that Haghighatpour, who is a member of a special committee established by Iran’s parliament to review the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, said the circumstances were not yet right to shake hands with a U.S. president.
“America is still the enemy of the Iranian nation and the U.S. insists on its enmity towards Iran. Therefore, shaking hands with the enemy is contrary to the revolution’s principles and against the nation’s rights,” Haghighatpour said. Bloomberg reports that he said Zarif’s gesture was “an ugly thing to do and Zarif should apologize to the Iranian nation for this.”
According to the Guardian, students affiliated with Iran’s hardline voluntary Basij militia issued a statement saying that Zarif is “shaking hands with the Great Satan. A Great Satan that takes pride in remaining as our enemy.”
In 2000, Iran’s then-President Mohammad Khatami had reportedly hid in a bathroom at the UN in order to avoid shaking hands with then-President Bill Clinton. Over a decade later, in 2013, there had been some discussion about an exchange similar to Monday’s handshake taking place between Presidents Obama and Rouhani, but a phone call took place instead; the call was also historic, as it was the first of its nature since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Upon his return to Iran, Rouhani was pelted with eggs, stones and even a shoe by a group of Iranian militants and hardliners as they shouted chants of “Death to America” (“Marg bar Amreeka”). Bloomberg notes that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the phone call was a mistake.