WASHINGTON – The United States and Iran took a historic step toward ending more than three decades of estrangement on Friday when President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani spoke by phone and agreed to work on resolving global suspicions that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
The 15-minute call capped a week of seismic shifts in the relationship that revolved around Rouhani’s participation in the annual U.N. meeting of world leaders. The night before the two leaders spoke, U.S. and European diplomats hailed a “very significant shift” in Iran’s attitude and tone in the first talks on the nuclear standoff since April.
The diplomatic warming began shortly after Rouhani’s election in June. But it is rooted in both presidents’ stated campaign desires – Obama in 2008 and Rouhani this year – to break through 34-year-old barriers and move toward diplomacy.
Iran is also seeking quick relief from blistering economic sanctions that the U.S. and its Western allies have imposed on Tehran to punish it for refusing to scale back its nuclear activities. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, but years of stonewalling inspections and secrecy about its activities have fueled fears it is seeking to build warheads.
Rouhani and Obama spoke while the Iranian president was in his car and headed to the airport to fly back to Tehran, with Obama at his desk in the Oval Office. Rouhani’s aides initially reached out to arrange the conversation, and the White House placed the call.
The last direct conversation between the leaders of the two countries was in 1979 before the Iranian Revolution toppled the pro-U.S. shah and brought Islamic militants to power. Obama said the long break “underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.”
“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 told reporters at the White House. Iran’s nuclear program has been a major concern not only to the United States but to other Middle Eastern nations – especially Israel – and to the world at large.
Earlier, at a news conference in New York, Rouhani linked the U.S. and Iran as “great nations,” a remarkable reversal from the anti-American rhetoric of his predecessors, and he expressed hope that at the very least the two governments could stop the escalation of tensions.
Iran scholar Gary Sick at Columbia University described the events as “breathtaking” and said the weeks of slow warming led to Friday’s dramatic step.
“This is part of a pattern that has led to a real breakthrough,” Sick said. “And basically what’s happening is that the ice that has covered the U.S.-Iran relationship for over the last 30 years is starting to break. And when ice starts to break up, it goes faster than you think.”
The groundwork for the detente was set years ago.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly said he would be willing to negotiate with Iran to ease tensions and move toward a nuclear settlement. That fell by the wayside, however, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected president in 2009 in a disputed vote that spurred the worst domestic unrest since 1979 and, in turn, a violent crackdown on the political opposition.
The nuclear talks between Iran and world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program have proceeded at a stagnant pace since then, prompting a series of blistering economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic that have drastically driven up inflation and slashed the value of the local currency, the rial. Rouhani took office Aug. 4 after overwhelmingly defeating several conservative candidates in the first round of election on a promise to seek relief from the sanctions – and has said he has “full authority” from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to do so.
Khamenei may be mindful that the pressure of sanctions could fuel a similar wave of unrest, and experts believe this is one reason he appears to have given his blessing to Rouhani to pursue negotiations.
Rouhani is no stranger to the nuclear talks. In 2003, he was on the Iranian team that negotiated a settlement with European nations under which it agreed to an additional safeguards protocol, suspend enrichment and allow additional inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The deal fell through when Iran reneged on its pledge to allow inspectors unfettered access to the nuclear sites, and then it withdrew from that protocol.
The offer currently on the negotiating table would give Iran some sanctions relief and pledge not to impose new penalties in exchange for ending uranium enrichment that nears or reaches 20 percent, a level that is just a few steps from what is needed to produce fuel for an atomic weapon.
The deal, which was offered last February, would also require Tehran to suspend enrichment at its fortified underground Fordo facility and prevent it from being able to restart that process quickly and it would have to grant U.N. inspectors greater access to monitor the nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met Thursday with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France – and Germany. He gave an “energetic” and “thoughtful” 15- to 20-minute presentation that outlined Iran’s interests, its desire to reach and implement an agreement within a year, and some general ideas on how that could happen, according to a senior U.S. official present.
Zarif’s comments were well-received, but each member of the group noted that the words have to be followed by actions and expressed a desire for the Iranians to flesh out their ideas, which appeared to be based on the February offer, according to the official.
The group of nations wants Iran to present a more detailed proposal before or at the next round of negotiations that are scheduled in Geneva on Oct. 15-16, the official said.
The White House said Obama told Rouhani he wants to see the return of two Americans detained in Iran – former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini – as well as retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007.