Washington, Sept. 28: President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani yesterday became the first leaders of America and Iran to speak since the Tehran hostage crisis 34 years ago.
In a hurriedly arranged phone call, Obama reached Rouhani as the moderate Iranian leader was headed to the airport after a whirlwind diplomatic blitz in New York. (See chart)
They agreed to accelerate talks aimed at defusing the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme and expressed optimism about a rapprochement that would transform West Asia.
“The biggest taboo in Iranian politics has been broken. This is the beginning of a new era,” said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.
The 15-minute call broke with normal protocol but helped avert, for Rouhani, a politically problematic photo with Obama that could have inflamed Iranian hardliners wary of his US outreach.
The polarisation in Iran was articulated before and after Rouhani landed in Tehran today. Hundreds of Iranians keen to see an end to international sanctions cheered Rouhani but about 100 hardliners shouted “Death to America” and threw eggs, stones and shoes at his car as it left the airport.
Iran’s state news channel had not mentioned the phone conversation till this morning and the original messages on Rouhani’s Twitter account, which struck an optimistic note, were replaced with more anodyne comments. But Rouhani’s office announced the call in a statement carried by Iran’s state news agency.
The call came just days after Rouhani had skipped a UN luncheon where Obama had hoped to meet him and shake hands, and later indicated it was premature to meet the US President.
The Americans said Iranian officials had suggested the phone call but after his return home, Rouhani hinted it was a US initiative.
Obama, referring to Tehran’s nuclear programme, later told reporters that “resolving this issue could also serve as a major step forward in a new (US-Iran) relationship… based on mutual interests and mutual respect”.
A Twitter account in Rouhani’s name said: “In regards to nuclear issue, with political will, there is a way to rapidly solve the matter.”
The account added that Rouhani had told Obama “we’re hopeful about what we will see from” the US and other major powers “in coming weeks and months”.
The last conversation between Iranian and US leaders had happened in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter spoke on the phone to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi shortly before the Islamic Revolution ousted the Shah and seized the US embassy. The 444-day hostage crisis left the two countries at odds ever since, with any contact reserved to letters or lower-level officials.
Obama placed the call from the Oval Office around 2.30pm, aided by a translator. He congratulated Rouhani on his June election and noted the history of mistrust between the two nations, but also what he called Rouhani’s constructive statements during his New York stay, an official said.
The bulk of the call focused on the nuclear dispute, and Obama repeated that he respected Iran’s right to develop civilian nuclear energy but insisted on concessions to prevent development of weapons. In a lighter moment, he apologised for New York traffic.