WASHINGTON – 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 Barack 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 Irans uranium enrichment program, which the United States, Israel and other nations believe is a 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 Obamas opening congratulations on Rouhanis 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 Rouhanis political opponents in Tehran – or to overly encourage his supporters.
Concluding his visit to New York, Rouhani struck a conciliatory note, telling a news conference that he had hoped to accept Obamas 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 Irans leadership, said there were signs to be optimistic that a resolution could be reached. He cited a religious order issued in January by Irans supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, against the development of nuclear weapons.
Rouhani was elected in June on a pledge to improve Irans 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 presented a more moderate Iranian leadership eager to end international isolation.