UNITED NATIONS — Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani spoke Friday by telephone in the first conversation between the presidents of the United States and Iran in more than 30 years, a stunning and unexpected development that may boost prospects for settling the years-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear program and other long divisive issues.
Obama made the unplanned call to Rouhani as the Shiite Muslim cleric was being driven to John F. Kennedy International Airport after a four-day visit to New York that marked his debut on the world stage following his June election. Both men announced the conversation shortly after it took place, Rouhani on his Twitter feed and Obama at a White House appearance that had been scheduled to discuss a budget impasse with Congress.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations released a four-line statement, saying the two discussed “different issues,” including the need “for expediting a resolution of the West’s standoff with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program.”
Experts on Iran used a wide range of superlatives to discuss the call. Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the editor of its Iran@Saban blog, called it “hugely positive,” while Sam Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank, said it was a “historic but long overdue moment.” National Security Adviser Susan Rice, speaking on CNN, called it a “groundbreaking event.”
It was just one of what had been a week of unprecedented developments in the tense U.S.-Iran relationship, including a surprise one-on-one meeting Thursday between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Only a few hours before the phone conversation, Rouhani had used a news conference in New York to chip away at another tension in the relationship, expressing hope that his trip would be a “first step” toward ending Iran’s international isolation and decades of animosity between “the two great nations of Iran and the United States of America” – remarkable phrasing for a member of a ruling theocracy that has for three decades denounced America as “The Great Satan.”
Maloney, the Brookings fellow, said Iran watchers were stunned by the phone call. “It is of an order of magnitude beyond anything that I think anyone would’ve imagined,” she said.
The phone call lasted only 15 minutes, but it offered the best hope in years for the two countries to settle their disagreements over Iran’s nuclear program and showed that both men believe conditions are right to risk a complex undertaking with no assurance of success.
Both men are likely to encounter fierce resistance from domestic opponents and close allies, especially Israel in the case of the United States.
Rouhani “underlined” to Obama “the need for a political will” to resolve the dispute, according to the Iranian statement.
“The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program,” Obama said at the beginning of a nationally televised address on the budget showdown in Congress. “While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.”
“Now, we’re mindful of all the challenges ahead,” he said. “The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.”
Obama was referring to the year of the Islamic Revolution, which toppled the late U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, sparked the 444-day seizure of American hostages by Iranian students at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and led the United States to break off diplomat relations in April 1980.
In describing how the call came about, a senior U.S. official in Washington said that Iranian officials contacted American counterparts and told them that Rouhani wanted to speak to Obama by phone. The White House then arranged for the call, which took place at about 2:30 p.m., according to the senior U.S. official, who could not be identified under the conditions of the briefing.
The pair spoke through a translator, even though Rouhani is fluent in English. The call was cordial, the senior official said, and ended with Obama thanking Rouhani in Farsi and the Iranian leader thanking Obama in English.
During the call, Obama expressed concern about three Americans, including former FBI agent Robert Levinson, a South Florida resident who disappeared from the Iranian island of Kish in 2007. The other two are Amir Hekmati, a former Marine of Iranian descent who is being held on espionage charges, and Saeed Abedini, an Iranian American Christian who’s been sentenced to eight years in prison for evangelizing.
After the call, the administration notified congressional leaders and Israel – the latter an indication of the sensitivity with which any U.S. rapprochement with Iran would be viewed in that country. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s long portrayed Iran’s nuclear threat as an existential threat to Israel, is scheduled to meet with Obama on Monday.
In the first sign of displeasure with the telephone call, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called for tightening sanctions on Iran until it halts uranium enrichment, the process that produces low-enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
“Our damaging sanctions have gotten Rouhani on the phone. We must increase the economic pressure until Iran stops its nuclear drive,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.
Even before the call, the broad outlines of a settlement over the nuclear program had been emerging in recent days – in the speeches the two presidents delivered on Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly, in other comments, and in statements by senior U.S., Iranian and European officials involved in long-deadlocked talks on the nuclear dispute.
Iran would have to accept intrusive international inspections and disclose the history of its program in order to reassure the world that it is not secretly developing nuclear weapons.
In return, multiple levels of sanctions would be lifted – albeit gradually – and the United States would recognize Iran’s right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the international system designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, to peaceful nuclear technology. That would include its right to enrich uranium for power plants and research.
Obama referred to the formula at his news conference on Friday.
“I’ve made clear that we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations,” he said. “So the test will be meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place.”
The first test of that formula will come on Oct. 15-16 in Geneva, where Rouhani said that Iran will present to the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany a roadmap for proceeding with negotiations that stalled in April.
“I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution” of the nuclear dispute, Obama said, pointing out that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a religious decree banning the development of nuclear weapons and Rouhani publicly has asserted that Iran will never build them.
At his news conference earlier in the day, Rouhani said that he, too, is confident that an agreement can be reached.
“In the not too distant future, I believe we can settle the nuclear issue,” he declared.
Rouhani had used his trip to the United Nations as part of an offensive to persuade the world that he intends to break with the distrust and hostility of the past. He packed his visit with talks with more than a dozen of the presidents, prime ministers and other leaders, addresses to the General Assembly and other U.N. forums, and a speech to foreign policy think tank in New York.
He also held private sessions with American academics and other Iran watchers and business leaders, met with Iranian-Americans and sat down for lengthy interviews with CNN and with PBS journalist Charlie Rose.
Though he did level barrages against the United States, they were delivered in serious tones and not with the animus, Holocaust denial and bizarre assertions with which his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, regaled the General Assembly during his eight years in power, provoking walkouts by Western and other diplomats. This time, only the Israeli delegation walked.
There were other marked differences. He referred to Israel by name, not as the “Zionist entity,” even while criticizing its refusal to join international arms control treaties. He acknowledged the Holocaust as a Nazi crime against the Jews and condemned extremism of all shades.
And while condemning Afghanistan’s puritanical Taliban insurgents during his news conference on Friday, he said women are equal with men, another departure for a leader of Iran, where women have long suffered intense discrimination.
“Women are like men and are equal with men and should be equally active in the social sphere,” he asserted.
Lesley Clark contributed from Washington.
Landay reported from New York, Kumar from Washington. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @jonathanlanday.