Of the 34 world leaders set to address the United Nations in New York Tuesday, all eyes are on President Obama and newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. U.S. and Iranian leaders have not met in more than three decades. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.
It would be the handshake watched around the world.
President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, will be at the United Nations together on Tuesday — their speeches to the General Assembly book-ending a luncheon for heads of state.
If both attend the luncheon — reports that Rouhani may skip circulated Monday night — they may break bread in the same room. But any gesture beyond that would be historic for two countries whose leaders have not met in three decades.
"It would be unprecedented for the Iranian president to even shake hands with the U.S. president and vice versa," said Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American author and commentator.
"It's possible that will happen this time around. Somebody would have to seek out the other party."
The White House has said no meetings are planned, but hasn't ruled out a spin on the diplomatic dance floor between Obama and Rouhani. And Rouhani sounds, on Twitter at least, like he doesn't intend to be a wall flower at his first mixer.
Even a brief, muted interaction, after years of avoidance, would "suggest that both the White House and the Islamic Republic feel confident this is not just a charm offensive and something more substantial," said Suzanne Maloney, a fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
"At this point, I almost worry that on the Iranian side there will be disappointment and frustration if we don't have any direct contact," she added. "We've just not had this kind of a meeting with this much hype swirling around it."
There are risks for both sides, she noted.
If Obama, who speaks in the morning, reaches out to Rouhani at the luncheon — assuming he attends — he'll be extending himself before he finds out what the Iranian has to say to the world.
President Hassan Rouhani arrived in the U.S. Monday on his first trip to address the U.N. Both he and President Obama will be speaking Tuesday but it's still unknown as to whether the two leaders will meet. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.
If Rouhani "gets up and gives anything other than the most forward-leaning speech," it would be a major embarrassment for Obama, Maloney said.
For the Iranians, who have traditionally refused to meet the Americans, a face-to-face with Obama would be a "major step away from one of the primary ideological pulls of the regime — this rejection of Washington's insolence," Maloney said.
And the hard-liners that Rouhani has to answer to at home won't be happy "if they come away with nothing more than a handshake, having abandoned something so central to the revolution."
Whatever takes place between the two presidents is likely to be choreographed, said Donald Ensenat, who served as the U.S. chief of protocol at the White House and the U.S. State Department from 2001 to 2007.
The seating at the luncheon is set out by the United Nations, and the heads of states and their foreign ministers begin drifting in at the appointed time to find their places.
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"You could walk up to someone and start a conversation but there's a very short window to do it until they are seated," he said.
Between the various addresses, there are alcoves that could be used for what Ensenat called a "pull-aside," a quick chat between two heads of state that rarely lasts more than 15 minutes.
"Those are always pre-arranged," he said.
Veteran diplomat Dennis Ross said if something spontaneous does happen, the U.S. needs to be careful that it doesn't appear to be snubbing Iran.
"If it became an issue that Rouhani was prepared to to shake the president's hand but the president wasn't prepared to shake his hand, it would look like the United States was contriving reasons not to get something done," he told "Andrea Mitchell Reports."
Mary Mel French, who was chief of protocol during the Clinton Administration and author of "United States Protocol," predicted that any exchange will be congenial and fleeting, and that no one will get the cold shoulder.
"There are a lot of nuances for both countries and everyone will be aware that people will be watching," she said.
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Mario Tama / Getty Images
Strong personalities and strong words have dotted the United Nations' history with scenes that won't soon be forgotten.
This story was originally published on Tue Sep 24, 2013 3:25 AM EDT