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.
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.