Washington (AFP) – U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone on Friday in the historic first direct contact between leaders of their two nations since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
The call, which came after the two leaders failed to have meet at the UN General Assembly in New York, provided dramatic evidence of an unprecedented opening in relations between the Islamic Republic and a foe it has reviled as the “Great Satan.”
“Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said in a televised statement.
“The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program,” Obama said.
“We’re mindful of all the challenges 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. I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution.”
Obama said he told Rouhani 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.
Washington and Israel have both warned of the possibility of military action if diplomacy fails to assuage their concerns over the nuclear program.
The Iranian presidency confirmed the telephone call between Obama and Rouhani.
“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,” the presidency said on its website.
A Twitter account run by Rouhani’s office also gave details of the call.
“In phone convo, President Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political will to rapidly solve the nuclear issue,” one tweet said.
Another tweet paraphrasing Rouhani read: “I express my gratitude for your #hospitality and your phone call. Have a good day Mr President.”
Obama meanwhile even apologized for the traffic in New York, according to a Rouhani tweet, in a startling sign of the new tone in relations between the two longtime enemies.
The call took place after pathbreaking bilateral talks Thursday between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the UN, on the sidelines of wider discussions on the nuclear program between Iran and major world powers.
Rouhani earlier continued his charm offensive in New York, a trip which set the next high level talks on the nuclear program next month.
He said in a press conference that Iran would present a plan at the talks in Geneva to resolve concerns over its nuclear program and vowed never to deviate from promises to the West.
“Iran will prepare that plan and will present it in Geneva. We hope it will serve as an even more effective step to settle the nuclear issue,” Rouhani said.
Rouhani said he hoped to resolve the nuclear row in a “short period of time,” a day after his foreign minister said that major powers had set a goal of a deal within one year.
The soft-spoken cleric swept to power in June, succeeding the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on promises to ease tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, which has triggered a crippling U.S.-led campaign of sanctions on Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who meets Obama on Monday at the White House, has branded Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Israeli officials frequently cite Rouhani’s past remark that Iran moved ahead with work on a uranium enrichment site in Isfahan while he served as nuclear negotiator a decade ago.
Rouhani rejected the allegations of duplicity, saying he had openly told European officials that Iran would complete the Isfahan facility and had cooperated with the UN atomic agency.
“We have never chosen deceit as a path. We have never chosen secrecy,” Rouhani told the news conference.
AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski