Beware hype over US-Iran thaw

Beware hype over US-Iran thaw

It was hailed as the "handshake that could shake the world", but in the end, the clasp of hands between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani never happened.

There were plenty of warm words and diplomatic hints on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly that got everyone excited about the prospect of the United States and Iran on the brink of a historic reconciliation.

If this were to come about, it will amount to the biggest geopolitical shift since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. It would avert a confrontation over Iran's nuclear aspirations, save lives and remake the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the chances of such a major breakthrough remain slim, not so much because of a lack of political will but more because neither side appears able to overcome the sheer enormity of the hurdles which lie ahead.

Relations between Iran and the US have sunk so low and Iran's isolation from mainstream international political debates has been so thorough that the arrival of Mr Rouhani's delegation in New York last week was treated as similar to the landing of some Martians.

Western media networks reported with wonderment that he and his entourage were actually able to smile, that they spoke "quite good" English and that - even more amazingly - some actually read foreign newspapers.

US journalists who spend their working lives lampooning politicians suddenly became respectful and went giddy with excitement at the prospect of being ushered into a hotel room for a meeting with the great man from Teheran.

"It was a careful Rouhani who sat down for a one-to-one interview," wrote David Ignatius of the Washington Post in reverential tones. Just think of it: The Washington Post journalist was suddenly faced with an elected politician who agreed to answer questions! Truly astonishing.

And as everyone swooned, few noticed that the most concrete sign of a US desire for reconciliation was Mr Obama's expression of regret for a US-sponsored coup which removed a previous Iranian government from power more than six decades ago.

In return, the most obvious Iranian concession was Mr Rouhani's public acceptance that the mass murder of Jews during World War II did indeed happen. The fact that both of these historic episodes still needed official "clarifications" did not strike many savvy commentators as unusual.

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