WASHINGTON – The United States and Iran took a historic step toward ending more than three decades of estrangement Friday when President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone and agreed to work on resolving global suspicions that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
It was the first direct conversation between the leaders of the two countries since 1979.
The 15-minute call capped a week of seismic shifts in the relationship that revolved around Rouhani’s participation in the annual U.N. meeting of world leaders. The night before the two leaders spoke, U.S. and European diplomats hailed a “very significant shift” in Iran’s attitude and tone in the first talks on the nuclear standoff since April.
The diplomatic warming began shortly after Rouhani’s election in June. But it is rooted in both presidents’ stated campaign desires – Obama in 2008 and Rouhani this year – to break through 34-year-old barriers and move toward diplomacy.
Iran is also seeking quick relief from blistering economic sanctions that the U.S. and its Western allies have imposed on Tehran to punish it for refusing to scale back its nuclear activities. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, but years of stonewalling inspections and secrecy about its activities have fueled fears it is seeking to build warheads.
Rouhani and Obama spoke while the Iranian president was in his car and headed to the airport to fly back to Tehran; Obama was at his desk in the Oval Office. Rouhani’s aides initially reached out to arrange the conversation, and the White House placed the call.
The last direct conversation between the U.S. and Iranian leaders came before the Iranian Revolution toppled the pro-U.S. shah and brought Islamic militants to power. Obama said the long break “underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.”
“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,” he told reporters at the White House.
Earlier Friday, at a news conference in New York, Rouhani linked the U.S. and Iran as “great nations,” a reversal from the anti-American rhetoric of his predecessors, and he expressed hope that at the very least the governments could stop the escalation of tensions.
“I want it to be the case that this trip will be a first step and a beginning for better and constructive relations with countries of the world as well as a first step for a better relationship between the two great nations of Iran and the United States of America,” Rouhani said at the end of his four-day debut on the world stage to attend the annual U.N. General Assembly.
Iran scholar Gary Sick at Columbia University described the events as “breathtaking” and said the weeks of slow warming led to Friday’s dramatic step. “This is part of a pattern that has led to a real breakthrough,” Sick said. “And basically what’s happening is that the ice that has covered the U.S.-Iran relationship for over the last 30 years is starting to break. And when ice starts to break up, it goes faster than you think.”
The groundwork for the detente was set years ago. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly said he would be willing to negotiate with Iran to ease tensions and move toward a nuclear settlement. That fell by the wayside, however, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected president in 2009 in a disputed vote that spurred the worst domestic unrest since 1979 and, in turn, a violent crackdown on the political opposition.
The nuclear talks between Iran and world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program have proceeded at a stagnant pace since then, prompting a series of blistering economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic that have drastically driven up inflation and slashed the value of the local currency, the rial. Rouhani took office Aug. 4 after overwhelmingly defeating several conservative candidates in the first round of election on a promise to seek relief from the sanctions. He has said he has “full authority” from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to do so.
The offer currently on the negotiating table would give Iran some sanctions relief and pledge not to impose new penalties in exchange for ending uranium enrichment that nears or reaches 20 percent, a level that is just a few steps from what is needed to produce fuel for an atomic weapon.
The deal, which was offered last February, would also require Tehran to suspend enrichment at its fortified underground Fordo facility and prevent it from being able to restart that process quickly and it would have to grant U.N. inspectors greater access to monitor the nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met Thursday with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France – and Germany. He gave a 15- to 20-minute presentation that outlined Iran’s interests, its desire to reach and implement an agreement within a year and some general ideas on how that could happen, a senior U.S. official present said.
Zarif’s comments were well received, but each member of the group noted that the words have to be followed by actions and expressed a desire for the Iranians to flesh out their ideas, which appeared to be based on the February offer, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The group of nations wants Iran to present a more detailed proposal before or at the next round of negotiations that are scheduled in Geneva on Oct. 15-16, the official said.