WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone on Friday, the highest-level contact between the two countries in more than three decades and a sign that both sides are serious about reaching a pact on Tehran’s nuclear program.
Obama, who pledged as a presidential candidate in 2007 his willingness to have direct contact with U.S. adversaries, had hoped to cross paths with Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly, but the Iranian side decided an encounter was too complicated.
On Friday, however, the Iranians said Rouhani was interested in a phone discussion before he left the United States, according to a senior administration official, and the White House quickly arranged the call which took place at 2:30 p.m. and lasted about 15 minutes.
Speaking to reporters, Obama said both men had directed their teams to work quickly toward an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. He said this was a unique opportunity to make progress with Tehran over an issue that has isolated it from the West.
“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,” Obama said at the White House.
The United States cut diplomatic relations with Iran a year after the 1979 revolution that toppled U.S. ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and led to a diplomatic crisis in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.
“The phone call was an important milestone — a calculated risk by two cautious leaders mindful of domestic constraints,” said Yasmin Alem, senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. “More than anything else it shows the high level of political capital invested in a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis.”
The telephone call, the first between the heads of government of the two nations since 1979, came while Rouhani was heading to the airport after his first visit to the U.N. General Assembly, according to a statement on Rouhani’s official website.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been asked to follow up on the Obama-Rouhani conversation, the statement added.
“The biggest taboo in Iranian politics has been broken. This is the beginning of a new era,” said Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.
As president, Rouhani is the head of the government but has limited powers. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the ultimate authority in Iran with final say on domestic and foreign policy, though Rouhani says he has been given full authority to negotiate on the nuclear issue.