Iran’s President Skipping Another Opportunity to Meet With Top US Officials

By Patrick Goodenough | January 7, 2014 | 4:21 AM EST

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani won the election last June but in the Islamic Republic the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sets foreign and security policy. (Photo: Office of Supreme Leader)

(Update: Adds details from conference organizers.)

( – Iranian President Hasan Rouhani this month will once again miss the chance to rub shoulders with senior American officials, as supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on foreign policy, evidently tolerates only lower-level encounters with the “global arrogance.”

Rouhani was invited to participate in the Munich Security Conference, an influential annual gathering of hundreds of senior figures focused on current and future strategic challenges. The event this year marks its 50th anniversary.

But although conference organizers sent the invitation to Rouhani months ago Iran’s IRNA state news agency now reports that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will attend instead.

A conference spokesperson, Barbara Mittelhammer, confirmed Tuesday that Rouhani was invited but had yet to reply. She said the conference chairman, former German ambassador to Washington Wolfgang Ischinger, expected Iran to participate at “cabinet level or higher.”

Had Rouhani taken up the invitation for the Jan. 31-Feb. 2 event, which includes speeches, panel discussions, breakout sessions and interviews, he would have been hard pressed to avoid interactions with senior Americans.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security advisor Susan Rice have all been invited, and Mittelhammer confirmed that they will attend.

Past U.S. participation has been at a senior level: Vice-President Biden attended just days after the inauguration in 2009 and again last year, and in 2012 the U.S. was represented by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

This year 18 heads of state and government and 50 foreign and defense ministers have already confirmed attendance. Mittelhammer said they include German President Joachim Gauck, who will deliver the opening speech. Special guests include former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former French President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing.

Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, has met with senior Americans several times – including a meeting with Kerry at the U.N. General Assembly last September and again during nuclear talks in Geneva in November – but Rouhani himself has not.

On the U.N. sidelines in New York in September, administration officials tried to secure an encounter between the Iranian leader and President Obama, without success.

“It was clear that it was too complicated for them to do that at this time, given their own dynamic back home,” a senior administration official speaking on background explained at the time.

Obama did speak to Rouhani by phone before the Iranian flew out, in what was described as the first direct communication between U.S. and Iranian presidents since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Whether Khamenei approved of the phone conversation is not known, although in a speech several days later the supreme leader said the delegation had performed well in New York, but added that some aspects of the trip had been “inappropriate” and “not quite desirable.” He did not elaborate.

Then in December, plans for a high-level state memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela raised speculation that a Rouhani-Obama handshake could be on cards. In an article headlined “Satan lays a trap, this time in Johannesburg,” an Iranian newspaper with close ties to Khamenei warned that Rouhani may be unable to avoid an encounter with Obama in South Africa.

In the event Tehran sent a foreign ministry official to Johannesburg, Rouhani stayed home, and the handshake that made headlines around the world was the one between Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro.

At last year’s Munich conference, Biden used the opportunity to reaffirm that the administration’s offer to engage with Iran, first made four years earlier, remained on the table.

Iran’s then-foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who was also attending the conference, said afterwards that Iran viewed Biden’s comments in a positive light, but added that whenever Iran had agreed to negotiate in the past, “it was the other side, unfortunately, who did not heed to its commitment.”

After Rouhani succeeded President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following elections in June Khamenei gave the go-ahead for a resumption in talks with the U.S. and five other world powers.

Two rounds were held in Geneva in November, resulting in a deal offering Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program. The interim agreement has a six-month time frame, although the period has yet to begin.

After the Nov. 24 agreement was struck, the Associated Press reported that secret talks between U.S. and Iranian officials had been underway for months.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow