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 Tehran hostage crisis more than three decades ago.
In a hurriedly arranged telephone call, Obama reached Rouhani as he was being driven to the airport to return to Iran after a whirlwind media and diplomatic blitz in New York. 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 Tehran’s nuclear program, told reporters at the White House 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.”
The conversation was the first between Iranian and US 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 US 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 expected 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 that it was premature to meet Obama.
But a subsequent meeting Thursday between US 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 US officials.
A senior Obama administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the White House had expressed the president’s interest in meeting Rouhani to the Iranians this week, but were surprised when they contacted the US 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 that Rouhani had made during his stay in New York, according to the official. The bulk of the call focused on the nuclear dispute, but Obama did apologize 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 over the phone instead of in person, Rouhani avoided a politically problematic photograph of himself alongside 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 phone call with Obama as of midnight Friday after news of it broke.
But 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.
Abbas Milani, an Iranian scholar at Stanford University, said Rouhani wanted to avoid looking like he was making concessions.
“The US and the West have wisely decided to allow the regime to make its claims of victory at home, so long as they play earnest ball in meetings abroad,” Milani said.
A call to a leader on the way to the airport might not be normal protocol, he added, but “in this case it was adroit policy for both sides.”
In announcing the call with Rouhani, Obama said that only “meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions” on the nuclear program could “bring relief” from sanctions.
“A path to a meaningful agreement will be difficult, and at this point both sides have significant concerns that will have to be overcome,” he said. “But I believe we’ve got a responsibility to pursue diplomacy, and that we have a unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran.”
Recognizing the delicacy of the outreach effort, Obama made a point of trying to reassure Israel that he would not jeopardize an ally’s security.