The Last Time an American President Met an Iranian Leader

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Bettmann / Corbis

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi shakes hands with U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 31, 1977.

The much-hyped potential encounter between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN during this week’s General Assembly would be the first in-person interaction between the two nations’ leaders since 1977.

In the above photo, U.S. President Jimmy Carter shakes hands with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi during an official visit to Tehran in December of that year. At the time, though demonstrations had already begun to shake Iran and its U.S.-friendly monarchy, Carter called the country under the Shah’s rule an “island of stability.”

Within two years, the demonstrations had snowballed into a massive protest movement, and the Shah fled Iran for good in January 1979. With the mullahs in the ascendancy, Iran soon became the Islamic Republic. In November, Iranian students overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, setting off a 444-day hostage crisis that severed diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The potential encounter between Obama and Rouhani—both will be speaking before the General Assembly on Tuesday—would only be a first and small step down a lengthy path toward restoring official ties. It’s likely to be little more than an acknowledgement and a handshake—if that.

It’s also sure to be highly scripted, said Robert Loftis, a career foreign service officer and a professor of practice of international relations at Boston University. Don’t expect an accidental run-in, or even a close shave like when then-First Lady Hillary Clinton found herself staying in the same hotel in Geneva as Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 1998.

“If both sides want it to happen, then it will happen,” Loftis said. “One of the rules in diplomacy is you really do try to avoid surprises.”