WASHINGTON — The long fractured relationship between the United States and Iran took a significant turn Friday when President Obama and President Hasan Rouhani became the first leaders of their countries to speak since the rupture of the hostage crisis more than three decades ago.
In a hurriedly arranged telephone call, Obama reached Rouhani as the Iranian was being driven to the airport to leave New York after a media and diplomatic blitz. The two agreed to accelerate talks aimed at defusing the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and afterward expressed optimism at the prospect of a rapprochement that would transform the Middle East.
“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 interests and mutual respect,” Obama, referring to Iran’s nuclear program, said after the 15-minute phone call. “It would also help facilitate a better relationship between Iran and the international community, as well as others in the region.”
On Twitter after the call, Rouhani wrote: “In regards to nuclear issue, with political will, there is a way to rapidly solve the matter.” He added that he had told Obama: “We’re hopeful about what we will see from” the United States and other major powers “in coming weeks and months.”
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The conversation was the first between Iranian and U.S. leaders since 1979, when President Carter spoke by telephone with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi shortly before the shah left the country, according to Iran experts. The Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah’s government led to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and a 444-day hostage crisis that have left the two countries at odds with each other ever since. Although Republican and Democratic presidents have reached out to Tehran in the interim, contact had been reserved to letters or lower-level officials.
The call came just days after Obama hoped to encounter Rouhani at a luncheon at the United Nations, where it was widely speculated that they would shake hands. Rouhani skipped the luncheon and later indicated it was premature to meet Obama. But a subsequent meeting Thursday between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran was described as constructive and led Iranian officials to contact the White House on Friday to suggest the phone call, according to U.S. officials.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said White House officials had expressed the president’s interest in meeting Rouhani to the Iranians this week but were surprised when they contacted the U.S. side Friday to suggest the phone call. Obama placed the call from the Oval Office around 2:30 p.m., joined by aides and a translator.
He opened by congratulating Rouhani on his election in June and noted the history of mistrust between the two nations but also what he called the constructive statements Rouhani had made during his stay in New York, according to the official. The bulk of the call focused on the nuclear dispute, and Obama repeated that he respected Iran’s right to develop civilian nuclear energy, but insisted on concessions to prevent development of weapons.
Obama also raised the cases of three Americans in Iran, one missing and two others detained. In a lighter moment, he apologized for New York traffic.
The call ended on a polite note, according to the official and Rouhani’s Twitter account.
“Have a nice day,” Rouhani said in English.
“Thank you,” Obama replied, and then tried a Persian farewell. “Khodahafez.”
By talking on the phone instead of in person, Rouhani avoided a politically problematic photograph of himself with Obama, which could have inflamed hard-liners in Iran who were already wary of his outreach to the United States.
Before leaving New York, Rouhani said his government would present a plan in three weeks on how to resolve the nuclear standoff.
“I expect this trip will be the first step and the beginning of constructive relations with countries of the world,” he said at a news conference.
He went on to say that he hoped the visit would also improve relations “between two great nations, Iran and the United States,” adding that the trip had exceeded his expectations.