US President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani spoke by phone Friday in a historic and first direct contact between leaders of their estranged nations since the 1979.
The stunning 15-minute call was the fruit of a diplomatic opening forged by Rohani’s election in June on a mandate to ease confrontation with the West and lift nuclear sanctions that have pulverized the Iranian economy.
“Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rohani of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said in a televised statement, revealing the most intriguing turn yet in relations between the two nations
“The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.”
Iranian newspapers Saturday hailed the contact between presidents Rohani and Obama but warned that opponents like arch-foe Israel would seek to torpedo the historic opening to Washington.
The impetus for the call came from Iranian officials, who US officials said told them hours earlier in New York that Rohani wanted to speak to Obama before leaving the United Nations General Assembly.
The White House had indicated to Tehran earlier this week that it was open to an informal encounter between the leaders at the United Nations.
The leaders’ momentous conversation took place when Rohani was on his way to the airport in his official limousine, the Iranian side said.
Obama spoke in English and Rohani spoke Farsi as they chatted through interpreters, according to US officials.
But before hanging up, in an exchange that would have been thought impossible only days ago, Obama bade Rohani “khodahafez” – Farsi for “goodbye.”
Rohani replied “have a good day, Mr President” in English, according to tweets by the Iranian leader’s office and a US official.
“It’s the end of a 35-year taboo,” trumpeted reformist daily Arman, referring to the rupture of diplomatic relations following the hostage-taking at the US embassy in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“The world caught unawares,” it crowed.
“International media in shock over the telephone call,” it said, referring to the timing of the call as Rohani headed to the airport after a visit to the United Nations where the media focus had been on the lack of a historic meeting.
The Etemad newspaper carried a photomontage of Rohani and Obama side by side. “Historic contact on way home,” read a banner headline taking up the whole front page.
But in an opinion piece international relations professor Mohammad Ali Bassiri warned that rapprochement between Tehran and Washington would face huge resistance both from Israel and from domestic opponents.
“These contacts and meetings between Iran and the United States have extremist opponents and both sides must be very careful,” Bassiri wrote.
“Alongside domestic extremists hostile to an improvement in Iran-US relations, there are also opponents in the region.
“Many countries, notably the Zionist regime, believe their interests will be jeopardized by a normalization of relations between Iran and the United States and will seek to stop it.”
Several newspapers carried the reaction of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, widely seen as Rohani’s mentor, who hailed the incumbent’s decision to speak to, but not meet, his US counterpart.
“Rohani’s success in New York is the mark of the divine victory,” Rafsanjani said.
“The fact that Obama asked our president to meet him but the latter said it’s too early and we must prepare the ground is the very triumph that God promised us,” he added.
A number of newspapers also carried the response of the commander of the Qods Force of the elite Revolutionary Guards.
“The respect shown by the world to President Rohani is the fruit of the nation’s resistance,” General Ghassem Soleimani said.
Many newspapers carried front-page photographs of a smiling Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Sharif and Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting between Iran and the major powers on its controversial nuclear program.
It was left to the ultra-conservative Kayhan newspaper to sound a negative note, criticizing Washington for its comments that the new tone from Iran did not go far enough and that its words needed to be matched by deeds.
The call took place after pathbreaking bilateral talks Thursday between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the UN, on the sidelines of wider discussions on the nuclear program between Iran and major world powers.
Obama said that, despite the unprecedented nature of the call with Rohani and hopes for a lasting diplomatic breakthrough, he was mindful of obstacles ahead.
“The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.”
Obama said he told Rohani that he believed a “resolution” was possible to the dispute over Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which the West believes is a covert effort to produce nuclear weapons – a charge Tehran denies.
Obama noted that Rohani had said that Iran would never develop nuclear arms and that Washington respected the right of Iranians to access peaceful nuclear energy.
“So the test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place,” the US president added.
The Iranian presidency confirmed the telephone call between Obama and Rohani.
“The two insisted on political will for quick resolution to the nuclear issue, as well as paving the ground for resolving other issues and cooperation in regional issues,” it said on its website.