The much-anticipated handshake never happened. And while their speeches to the UN General Assembly offered no major breakthrough between their two countries, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did signal first steps toward a potential thaw in relations.
"I think we're in a moment of real possibility,” said Suzanne Maloney, an expert in Iran and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “I'd been arguing since June 14, when it was clear Rouhani was moving toward a victory [in Iranian elections], that this was an effort by Tehran to rebrand itself in the world and to negotiate more seriously on the nuclear issue. There can be no skepticism on those two points.”
But Maloney cautioned that despite the signals, the United States and Iran, after 34 years of hostility, are still a ways away from “rapprochement.”
“It would be extraordinary and probably unsustainable if you had that kind of breakthrough with no prior or little prior diplomatic contact… simply on the basis of these minimal signals and the back and forths of today," she told CBC News.
No interest in escalating tensions
In his speech, Obama actually spent little time on Iran but said he was "encouraged" by Rouhani's election. He added, however, that his "conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable."
Meanwhile, Rouhani, said Iran was ready to enter talks "without delay" and insisted his country was not interested in escalating tensions with the U.S. But he insisted Iran must retain the right to enrich uranium, and vigorously denied that his country was seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
With Iran’s economy strangled by economic sanctions imposed on it over its nuclear program, Rouhani is putting out signals that they are eager to cut some kind of deal quickly, Maloney said.
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“Whether it’s because they fear the political backlash and want to be able to demonstrate that a deal is possible or because the president knows he has to deliver on his campaign slogans of improving the economy,” she said. “The Iranians for the first time really seem as though they have a serious incentive to get something done."
Although there was a lot of buzz over a possible historic handshake or meeting between the two presidents, the meeting never materialized.
Maloney said the whole initiative was a big American misstep, and that there was no possibility the Iranians were going to put their new president in a photo op that would have netted them nothing.
“It was just too big a political risk. It was sure to come with blow back from hardliners,” she said. "I think it was poorly managed. Anyone who understands where the Iranians are coming from could have known no matter what their team was saying, this had very limited prospects of succeeding.”
A different kind of face
Still, Geneive Abdo, an expert on Iranian domestic politics and a fellow at the Stimson Center public policy institute based in Washington, D.C., told CBC News that she thought Rouhani’s speech was “really significant” because it presented such a different kind of face of Iran than former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Unlike his predecessor, known for his fiery rhetoric at such forums, Rouhani presented a much more moderate tone — a culmination of his so-called charm offensive to the Western media leading up to the speech.
He still outlined Iran’s long-standing grievances against the West, but articulated them in a more sophisticated and thoughtful way, Abdo noted.
“What’s different is a new desire for reconciliation. Ahmadinejad was all about hostility. Hostility toward the West, hostility toward Israel. Rouhani is not about hostility.
“He said in very direct language there’s now chance for peace or reconciliation. I don’t think he would have used that language if they had no intentions," Abdo said. "But skeptics are correct in demanding there be something concrete that follows these promises.”
As for Obama, the president took a big step when he said his administration would not be seeking regime change, said Reva Bhalla, vice-president of global analysis at Stratfor and an expert on Middle Eastern affairs.
"That's a pretty notable shift especially from a lot of the rhetoric from the Bush administration on empowering the Iranian people to effect change in the Islamic republic," Bhalla said.
Diplomacy will need time
She thought Rouhani was quite reserved in his speech and that any significant diplomatic development is going to take time.
"Right now we’re still very much in the gesture phase. All the right things are being said. When we get into the meat of the negotiations, that's where we're going to hit some real sticking points," she said in a phone interview.
“Overall, we're in a very new and I think important phase in U.S.-Iranian relations. This is by no means a breakthrough yet.”
It’s still unclear what concessions Iran is willing to give on the nuclear issue. It’s expecting the U.S. will show some signs of good faith through an easing up of sanctions, but that could prove difficult as many of those sanctions are wrapped up in congressional legislation, Bhalla said.
As well, those same sanctions have driven Iran to the negotiating table, meaning the U.S. may not be too keen to ease up on them, she said.
As for the immediate future, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been tasked with pursuing the prospect of a nuclear agreement with Iran. Kerry, along with representatives from five other world powers, is to meet Thursday with Iran's new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
"I think that's where we have some real chance of seeing — I don't want to go so far as [a] 'breakthrough' — but seeing some real positive momentum,’” Maloney said.