Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was on his way to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York about 2:30 p.m. Friday when the phone rang in his car. President Obama was on the line from the Oval Office, and the two men spoke for 15 minutes, ending a decades-long diplomatic freeze.
No U.S. leader had spoken with an Iranian president since the Islamic revolution ousted the U.S.-backed shah in 1979.
At a news briefing at the White House, Obama told reporters that the two agreed to direct their negotiating teams to seek a deal over Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which the United States, Israel and other nations believe is cover to develop nuclear weapons. Iranian officials have denied that intent.
“The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries,” Obama said. “But it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.”
Rouhani tweeted out news of the conversation, including that Obama said goodbye in Farsi.
A senior Obama administration official said the tone of the discussion was “cordial,” beginning with Obama’s opening congratulations on Rouhani’s recent election as president.
“The bulk of the call focused on the nuclear issue,” the official said, adding that Obama also expressed concern over two Americans held in Iran and a third who is missing there. “This was about adding momentum to what is already underway.”
The senior official, who talked to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Iranian officials made clear Friday that Rouhani wanted to speak to Obama before his return to Tehran.
Rouhani had been unwilling to have a brief encounter with Obama when both were at the United Nations this week. A near-handshake highlighted the political challenges Rouhani faces inside Iran, as he seeks to balance the interests of political hard-liners opposed to concessions on the nuclear issue and of those Iranians who elected him and are eager for the economic relief an agreement might bring.
A phone call meant there was no photograph of the two leaders together to irritate Rouhani’s political opponents in Tehran — or to overly encourage his supporters.
Concluding his visit to New York earlier in the day, Rouhani struck a conciliatory note, telling a news conference that he had hoped to accept Obama’s offer to meet this week at the United Nations. But, he said, “the timetable was too short to plan a meeting of two presidents.”
“After 35 years of great tensions between Iran and the United States, and very numerous issues that persist in the relationship, a meeting of the presidents for the first time in this period would naturally come along with certain complications of their own,” Rouhani said.
Obama, who campaigned at some political risk in 2008 on a pledge to directly engage Iran’s leadership, said there were signs to be optimistic that a resolution could be reached. He cited a religious order issued in January by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, against the development of nuclear weapons.
Rouhani was elected in June on a pledge to improve Iran’s relationship with the West and end sanctions that were imposed to pressure the government to open up its enrichment program.
On his first visit to the United Nations this week, Rouhani, in speeches and in meetings, presented a more moderate Iranian leadership eager to end international isolation. Obama indicated Friday that may be possible.
“The test will be meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place,” Obama said. “Resolving this issue, obviously, could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic republic of Iran, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Obama said the leaders agreed that the negotiations would continue through the five U.N. veto-holding members and Germany, the international group that has been managing talks in recent years.
On Monday, Obama hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has cautioned the United States to view Rouhani’s overtures with skepticism. Obama is also facing doubts about his overture to Iran from Senate Republicans, who have warned him not to place too much faith in Rouhani, given the opposition the Iranian president faces at home.
“A path to a meaningful agreement will be difficult,” Obama acknowledged. “And at this point, both sides have significant concerns that will have to be overcome. But I believe we’ve got a responsibility to pursue diplomacy and that we have a unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran.”