The American president is likely not excited about the prospect of crossing paths with his Iranian counterpart. As a candidate, Mr. Obama famously and controversially vowed during a 2007 debate that he would meet with the leader of Iran (as well as Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea) during the first year of his administration, separately and without precondition.
The General Assembly would be a perfect opportunity for such a meeting, as Mr. Obama well knows: He has a dizzying agenda scheduled in conjunction with the event, including meetings with the leaders of Japan, China and Russia and a summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Absent from the schedule is a meeting with Ahmadinejad - and that's not much of a surprise. The Iranian leader, long at odds with the U.S., has spent the last few months making himself into an even less appealing diplomatic partner. He held onto power in an election that many inside and outside Iran saw as illegitimate, then oversaw a violent crackdown on protesters and political opponents. In his latest provocation, Ahmadinejad on Friday reiterated his suggestion that the Holocaust was a lie and later added that angry reaction to the comments was a source of pride.
This has gone on against a backdrop of continued concern in the West about Iran's nuclear program and the threat posed by its short- and medium-range missile capacity; last Thursday, Mr. Obama announced an overhaul in U.S. missile defense strategy that he said resulted in part from the threat from Iran.
All this makes the prospect of a meeting with Ahmadinejad – or even just an impromptu encounter – extremely unappealing for Mr. Obama. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told reporters last week that the president would avoid "direct engagement" with the Iranian leader, and the administration likely isn't just going to hope for the best: Ray Takeyh, who until August was a senior adviser for Iran at the State Department, told the New York Times that "you've got to get the Secret Service to put stumbling blocks in the way."
"You've got to quarantine that off," he said. "You've got to get the sniffing dogs out. You've got to make sure to avoid any kind of chance encounter with Ahmadinejad."
While Mr. Obama has nothing to gain from even a chance meeting with Ahmadinejad, the Iranian leader might welcome the opportunity for a handshake and the implied acknowledgment of legitimacy that comes with it. Such a meeting, the Times notes, would effectively "deflate Iran's nascent political opposition, give conservative hawks in the United States even more to lambaste the president for, and send Israel over the edge." Political watchers will recall that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez surprised Mr. Obama at the Summit of the Americas in April, offering him a handshake that prompted criticism of the president back home.
All this sets up a fascinating Wednesday: Will Ahmadinejad try to score a personal interaction with the president – and if he does, how will Mr. Obama react? Will the Iranian president be in the audience while Mr. Obama speaks – and will he offer any sort of response if the president takes him to task? And how will the U.S. delegation respond to Ahmadinejad's address, particularly if the Iranian leader reiterates his questioning of the Holocaust?
Stay tuned to the goings-on at United Nations Plaza tomorrow for the answers.