WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama spoke by telephone with President Hasan Rouhani of Iran on Friday afternoon, the first direct conversation between leaders of the two estranged countries since the rupture of the Tehran hostage crisis more than three decades ago.
Obama called the discussion an important breakthrough after a generation of deep mistrust and suggested it could serve as the starting point to an eventual deal on Iran's nuclear program and a broader renewal of relations between two countries that once were close allies.
"The test will be meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place," Obama told reporters. "Resolving this issue, obviously, could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
Obama added: "A path to a meaningful agreement will be difficult, 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."
The conversation took place just days after Rouhani declined to attend a lunch at the United Nations where U.S. officials hoped the two presidents might shake hands. Rouhani suggested later that a meeting was premature and might jeopardize hopes of diplomatic progress.
But the telephone call Friday reinforced optimism at the White House that Rouhani's election may presage a new thinking in Tehran under the weight of crushing economic sanctions imposed in recent years. Secretary of State John Kerry engaged in direct talks Thursday with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Obama said the two would pursue additional discussions in cooperation with allies.
The Iranian mission at the United Nations said the two presidents had talked as Rouhani was in a car in New York heading to the airport.
"The Iranian and U.S. presidents underlined the need for a political will for expediting resolution of the West's standoff with Iran over the latter's nuclear program," the mission said. The two presidents "stressed the necessity for mutual cooperation on different regional issues."
Recognizing the sensitivities of the conversation, Obama made a point of trying to reassure Israel that he would not sell out an ally's security. "Throughout this process, we'll stay in close touch with our friends and allies in the region, including Israel," he told reporters after the phone call.
He added, "I do believe that there is a basis for resolution," citing Rouhani's comment that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons and reiterating his own "respect" for "the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy."
The call came after Rouhani said in New York that his government would present a plan in three weeks on how to resolve the nuclear standoff. "I expect this trip will be the first step and the beginning of constructive relations with countries of the world," he told a news conference.
He went on to say that he hoped the visit would also improve relations "between two great nations, Iran and the United States," adding that the trip had exceeded his expectations.
Rouhani and his aides have been on an extraordinarily energetic campaign to prove they are moderate and reasonable partners and to draw a stark contrast with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Rouhani has yet to propose anything concrete to suggest how different the Iranians really are in their approach. The first glimpse of that is due to come Oct. 15 and 16, when Iran plans to present its own road map.
Rouhani's pronouncements this week painted a mixed picture. He has made clear that Iran planned to continue to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear program and on several occasions said no country should have a nuclear arsenal, singling out Israel. But before the phone call, he attributed his failure to meet with Obama to a desire "to have a successful and effective meeting."
He repeatedly emphasized that his government had both the authority and the will to reach a nuclear settlement within what he called "a short period of time." But he was visibly irritated when asked whether his diplomatic blitz was merely designed to buy time with his Western interlocutors. "We have never chosen deceit as a path; we have never chosen secrecy," he said.
The last time a U.S. president met with an Iranian leader was Dec. 31, 1977, when Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, spent New Year's Eve as a guest of the shah of Iran. As he made a toast to the shah at a state dinner, the president said the idea for the trip had come from Rosalynn Carter, when he asked her with whom she would like to celebrate the holiday.