Obama talks by phone to new Iran leader Rouhani

U.S., Iran break decades of quiet


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WASHINGTON -- The long-fractured relationship between the United States and Iran took a significant turn Friday, when President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani became the first leaders of their countries to speak since the Tehran hostage crisis more than three decades ago.

In a hurriedly arranged phone call, Mr. Obama reached Mr. Rouhani as he was being driven to the airport to return to Iran after a whirlwind New York 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," Mr. Obama, referring to Tehran's nuclear program, told White House reporters 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Obama, "We're hopeful about what we will see from" the United States and other major powers "in coming weeks and months."

The conversation was the first between Iranian and U.S. leaders since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter spoke by phone 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 U.S. Embassy's seizure and a 444-day hostage crisis that have left the two nations at odds ever since. Although both Republican and Democratic presidents have reached out to Tehran in the interim, contact had been limited to letters or lower-level officials.

The call came just days after Mr. Obama expected to encounter Mr. Rouhani during a U.N. luncheon, where it was widely speculated that they would shake hands. Mr. Rouhani skipped the luncheon and later indicated that it was premature to meet Mr. Obama. But a subsequent meeting Thursday between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif 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, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the White House had told the Iranians of the president's interest in meeting Mr. Rouhani this week, but were surprised when they contacted the U.S. side Friday to suggest the call. Mr. Obama placed the call from the Oval Office around 2:30 p.m., joined by aides and a translator.

He opened by congratulating Mr. Rouhani on his election in June and noted the history of mistrust between the two nations, but also what he called the constructive statements Mr. Rouhani had made during his New York stay, according to the official. The bulk of the call focused on the nuclear dispute, but Mr. Obama did apologize for New York traffic. The call ended on a polite note, according to the official and Mr. Rouhani's Twitter account.

"Have a nice day," Mr. Rouhani said in English.

"Thank you," Mr. Obama replied, and then tried a Persian farewell. "Khodahafez."

By talking over the phone instead of in person, Mr. Rouhani avoided a politically problematic photograph of himself alongside Mr. Obama, which could have inflamed hard-liners in Iran who were already wary of his outreach to the United States. As it was, conservative elements in Tehran tried to reinterpret his statements acknowledging the Holocaust while in New York.

The state news channel, the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, had not mentioned the call with Mr. Obama as of midnight Friday after news of it broke. But Mr. Rouhani's office announced the call in a statement carried by the Iranian state news agency, and advisers said the conversation was a meaningful step.

"This voice contact has, for now, replaced the actual shaking of hands, but this is clearly the start of a process that could in the future lead to a face-to-face meeting between both leaders," said Amir Mohebbian, a political adviser close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

U.S. advocates of closer relations between the two countries were optimistic. "The phone call wasn't just history," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control group, who attended a New York dinner with Mr. Rouhani. "It helped fundamentally change the course of Iranian-U.S. relations. We're on a very different trajectory than we were even at the beginning of the week."

But others expressed caution, arguing that Iran was reaching out only because international sanctions have strangled its economy. "The economic pain now is sufficient to oblige a telephone call, though not a face-to-face meeting," said former CIA specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "We will see whether the pain is sufficient for the Iranians to shut the heavy-water plant at Arak and reverse Iran's path to a rapid breakout capacity with enriched uranium."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., criticized Mr. Obama for not pressing Iran to halt its support for terrorism and Syria's government. "It is particularly unfortunate that President Obama would recognize the Iranian people's right to nuclear energy, but not stand up for their right to freedom, human rights or democracy," he said.

Recognizing the delicacy of the outreach effort, Mr. Obama made a point of trying to reassure Israel that he would not jeopardize an ally's security. "Throughout this process, we'll stay in close touch with our friends and allies in the region, including Israel," he said in announcing the Rouhani call.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Mr. Obama at the White House on Monday.

Before leaving New York, Mr. 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 also said he hoped that the visit would also improve relations "between two great nations, Iran and the United States," adding that the trip had exceeded his expectations.

Mr. Rouhani and his aides have been on an extraordinarily energetic campaign to prove they are moderate and reasonable partners and to draw a stark contrast with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Mr. Rouhani has yet to propose anything concrete to suggest how different these Iranians are in their approach. The first glimpse of that is due Oct. 15 and 16, when Iran plans to present its own road map in Geneva to U.S., European, Russian and Chinese diplomats.

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