updated 8:30 p.m.
President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone Friday —the first direct conversation between leaders of the two countries since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Obama announced the call, which could augur a new era in U.S.-Iran relations, in the White House briefing room, describing the conversation as a breakthrough in relations soured by decades of mistrust stemming from the hostage crisis.
But the call--which a senior administration official described as "cordial"--was the kind of clear opening that Obama has sought since the beginning of his presidency. And it sparks the possibility for a resolution of tensions over the future of Iran's nuclear program and perhaps an end to crushing sanctions that have stifled the Iranian economy.
"A path to a meaningful agreement will be difficult," Obama said. "And at this point both sides have significant concerns that will have to be overcome. 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."
Obama said that he had directed Secretary of State John Kerry to continue the dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program—an initiative Obama first announced earlier this week. News of the call surprised many, but not those who follow Rouhani on twitter. Obama was running late for his scheduled appearance in the briefing room and before he made it to the podium, the Iranian leader broke the news himself.
In phone convo, President #Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political #will to rapidly solve the #nuclear issue.— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 27, 2013
White House photographer Pete Souza tweeted a picture of the call:
Historic phone call in the Oval Office: Pres Obama talks w Iran Pres Hassan Rouhani this afternoon pic.twitter.com/5EZSOdBouD— petesouza (@petesouza) September 27, 2013
The Iranian mission to the United Nations released a statement after the call that said the two presidents spoke as Rouhani was in a car headed toward the airport. The two men discussed expediting a resolution of Iran's nuclear program and "stressed the necessity for mutual cooperation on different regional issues," according to the Iranian statement.
The senior U.S. administration official said that Obama opened the phone call by congratulating Rouhani on his election victory, then turned the conversation to the "history of mistrust between the nations."
The "bulk of the call focused on the nuclear issue," said the official.
A vast Iranian effort to enrich uranium was uncovered in 2003 after reports about its existence came to light from Iranian dissidents. Oil-rich Iran has claimed that the program is designed to produce a peaceful nuclear energy program. But U.N. nuclear inspectors have been unable to confirm that and in the intervening years have uncovered evidence that appears to point towards the possibility that the program could be used to develop nuclear weapons. With Iran only accelerating its program, the United States and its allies pushed for tougher international sanctions in an effort to force Iran to the negotiating table.
There was speculation earlier this week that the two leaders might find time for a historic handshake when both spoke at the United Nations on Tuesday. But Rouhani, perhaps not ready for such a high-profile and public moment, did not attend the lunch where a casual side meeting could have taken place.
Obama has tried to reach out to the Iranians since his election in 2008.
"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said in his 2009 inaugural speech. "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
But hardline leaders were in power then in Iran. Rouhani's recent election, followed by a week-long charm offensive while in the United States this week, seemed to indicate a new willingness to come to the negotiating table with the United States and its European allies.
Meanwhile, hardliners in the U.S. reacted to news of the call by criticizing Obama's diplomacy and trying to resurrect the idea that he is naive about Iran. "I am concerned that President Obama did not press Iranian President Rouhani to halt Iran's ongoing support for radical Islamic terrorism, its repeated violations of U.N. and IAEA resolutions, and its support of Bashar Assad's war against the Syrian people," said a statement from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Although President Rouhani has said explicitly that he has the power to negotiate an agreement, Cantor said that "Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei remains the true ruler in Tehran, and we are only fooling ourselves when we suggest otherwise."
Rouhani ended the call by saying "Have a nice day," in English. Obama replied, "Thank you" in Farsi, said the U.S. official.