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Cat and mouse: Iranian foreign minister shakes hands with senior U.S. official… but dodges Hillary Clinton

MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki twice on Friday, pursuing him both inside and outside the gala dinner here at the Ritz Carlton in Manama. But Mottaki deliberately avoided contact with her both times. "If he comes to the dinner, I’ll probably see him. But ...

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki twice on Friday, pursuing him both inside and outside the gala dinner here at the Ritz Carlton in Manama. But Mottaki deliberately avoided contact with her both times.

"If he comes to the dinner, I'll probably see him. But he doesn't talk to me," Clinton told The Cable in our exclusive interview just hours before the event.

Turns out she was right. Everybody at the opening dinner for the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, where Clinton gave the speech, was watching to see if she and Mottaki would trade words. After all, they were seated only five seats apart. Clinton went out on a limb twice to try to make it happen, but the end result was only an unintelligible mutter from the Iranian leader in the general direction of the secretary.

MANAMA, Bahrain—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki twice on Friday, pursuing him both inside and outside the gala dinner here at the Ritz Carlton in Manama. But Mottaki deliberately avoided contact with her both times.

"If he comes to the dinner, I’ll probably see him. But he doesn’t talk to me," Clinton told The Cable in our exclusive interview just hours before the event.

Turns out she was right. Everybody at the opening dinner for the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, where Clinton gave the speech, was watching to see if she and Mottaki would trade words. After all, they were seated only five seats apart. Clinton went out on a limb twice to try to make it happen, but the end result was only an unintelligible mutter from the Iranian leader in the general direction of the secretary.

Clinton’s first attempt came just as the dinner ended. All the leaders sitting at the head table were shaking each other’s hands. Mottaki was shaking hands with Jordan’s King Abdullah II when Clinton called out to him.

"As I was leaving and they were telling me, ‘Hurry up, you have to get to the plane,’ I got up to leave and he was sitting several seats down from me and he was shaking people’s hands, and he saw me and he stopped and began to turn away," Clinton told reporters on the plane ride home.

"And I said, ‘Hello, minister!’ And he just turned away," said Clinton, adding that Mottaki seemed to mutter something in Farsi but was clearly trying to avoid her.

In his Saturday morning press conference, Mottaki had a different take on the interaction.

"Some people said that last night at the dinner Hillary Clinton said hello to me as I was greeting the king of Jordan," he said. "According to the Islamic tradition, there is a necessity to respond… The people of this region are very famous for being polite."

But that wasn’t Clinton’s only try. We’re told by a senior member of the U.S. delegation that as Clinton’s huge team moved to the door, Mottaki kept his delegation back to avoid having the two delegations converge at the door at the same time.

The next attempt by Clinton came outside the conference space, in the driveway while both leaders were waiting for their motorcades to pull up. Again, Clinton called out to Mottaki with a greeting and again, Mottaki refused to respond.

There’s a lot of buzz about this game of cat and mouse between Clinton and Mottaki here at the conference. Most observers said that Mottaki simply was not interested in making any news about a warm interaction with Clinton ahead of the negotiations. It simply would not play well for him domestically.

Several attendees speculated that Mottaki is resisting interacting with Clinton at least in part because she is a woman. Mottaki’s behavior at the press conference confirmed that he is distinctly less interested in dealing with women face to face.

But if Mottaki thinks he has gotten away with successfully avoiding any direct contact with the U.S. delegation, he is dead wrong. And the funny thing is, he probably doesn’t even know it.

After Clinton left town, the delegation heads sat down for lunch Saturday at a local Japanese restaurant. Two witnesses confirmed that as part of the opening greetings, Mottaki shook hands with Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow. Both witnesses said they were sure Mottaki had no idea at the time that he had just shaken hands with a U.S. government official.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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