President Barack Obama announced on Friday afternoon that he had spoken directly with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first such conversation since the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the clearest sign yet of a rapproachment between the United States and Iran.
News began to spread about the conversation when Rouhani’s Twitter account announced that he and Obama and spoken directly, which set off a stream of speculation from foreign policy observers. Within minutes, that tweet had been deleted and replaced by another. “In a phone conversation b/w #Iranian & #US Presidents just now: @HassanRouhani: “Have a Nice Day!” @BarackObama: “Thank you. Khodahafez” the tweet reads.
Any confusion was ended as moments later, Obama entered the White House Press Briefing Room to address the public. “Just now I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he confirmed. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. I reiterated it to the President Rouhani what I said in New York,” the president said, referring to his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. “While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward, and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach comprehensive solution.”
The conversation between the leaders comes less than twenty-four hours after Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met face-to-face in New York over Iran’s nuclear program. Currently, members of the international community remain concerned that Iran is using its program as a cover to develop technology that would let them develop nuclear weapons should they so choose. Iran, however, maintains that its program is for peaceful purposes only. Negotiations between the P5+1 — France, Russia, Germany, China, the United Kingdom and U.S. — have so far met at an impasse, even as unilateral and multilateral sanctions cripple Iran’s economy.
Rumors swirled earlier in the week that Obama and Rouhani would have a chance encounter while they were both in New York, as a follow-up to the letters the two had sent each other following Rouhani’s election. Iran reached out to the White House earlier on Friday wanting to have Rouhani and Obama speak before the former flew back to Tehran, leaving the U.S. to set up the call. The two then spoke for about fifteen minutes with an interpreter, according to a senior administration official. More details have of the call have come through via Rouhani’s twitter account since the conversation ended, including that Obama reportedly apologized for New York’s traffic. While focused on the Iranian nuclear issue, Obama also noted his concern about three Americans, two of whom are being held in Iran and other missing in the country, the official told the press.
“Throughout this process, we’ll stay in touch with our friends and allies in the region, including Israel,” Obama said. The same administration official later confirmed that both Israel and Congress had been informed about the call before it was announced publically. “We’re mindful of all the challenges. The very fact that this was the first communication between a US and Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history. I do believe there is a basis for a resolution.”
The Iranian government’s website also confirmed the phone call. “The Iranian and US presidents underlined the need for a political will for expediting resolution of West’s standoff with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program,” a statement on the site reads in English. “President Rohani and President Obama stressed the necessity for mutual cooperation on different regional issues. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his American counterpart John Kerry have been commissioned to follow up talks between the two countries.”
Resolving this issue, Obama said, obviously could also serve as a major step in a new relationship between the United States and Iran “one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” It would also help facilitate a better relationship between Iran and the international community, he said, as well as others in the region. This relationship would “one that would help the Iranian people reach their extraordinary potential but also help us address other concerns that could help bring greater peace and security to the Middle East,” Obama said.
“The path meaningful agreement will be difficult and at this point both sides have some concerns that will have to be overcome,” Obama warned, “But I believe we have a responsibility to pursue diplomacy and we have a unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran.”