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In Historic Call, Obama and Iranian Leader Talk

In Historic Call, Obama and Iranian Leader Talk

By Alexis Simendinger - September 28, 2013

President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani agreed during a historic telephone conversation Friday to move “with a sense of urgency,” and with allies, to reach a negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

For the first time in more than three decades, the leaders of the United States and Iran engaged directly in what Tehran hopes will be a process to end crippling international sanctions, and Obama hopes will lead to a shutdown of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

“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 shortly after the surprise 15-minute conversation with Rouhani.

Obama, who is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, believes Iran has made “constructive statements” that will have to be measured against global skepticism about its motives in adopting a more moderate posture since Rouhani’s election this summer.

The White House quickly offered Israel and leaders in Congress a readout of Obama’s discussion, and one official, speaking on background, conceded that Netanyahu will justifiably insist on strenuous testing of Iran’s deeds, not mere acceptance of its vow to cooperate.

The official, responding to several questions from journalists, said the call with Rouhani was arranged on short notice before the new leader departed New York City. Rouhani and Obama delivered separate speeches earlier in the week to the United Nations General Assembly, and the Iranian leader was preparing Friday to return to his homeland.

The White House made overtures while in New York to arrange a handshake between the two men -- an idea Iran rebuffed. But on Friday, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, held direct talks, Rouhani’s representatives sent word that he would like to speak with the American president, the official explained.

Obama has not spelled out the “actions” the United States and its allies expect to see in Iran before international sanctions could be loosened, but the president says the United States is open to a nuclear energy program in Iran, which has long been that country’s disputed explanation for uranium enrichment.

“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 president repeated.

Since he was a candidate in 2007, Obama has expressed a willingness to engage in negotiations with the Iranian government to find a new way forward, insisting the United States would not accept a nuclear-armed Iran. Because Rouhani was elected after promises to try to end sanctions that have hobbled his nation’s economy, Obama said he believed direct negotiations were worth exploring.

“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,” he explained.

Before Obama described the historic conversation to reporters, Rouhani broke the news of their discussion via a Twitter feed in his name in English. It was a notable breakthrough in international statecraft as well: “In a phone conversation b/w #Iranian & #US Presidents just now: @HassanRouhani: "Have a Nice Day!" @BarackObama: "Thank you. Khodahafez [good-bye]."

Asked whether the administration was aware Rouhani had scooped Obama, the White House official said the president’s aides follow Rouhani’s tweets and knew the information circulated rapidly via social media.

The next step in the process will take place Oct. 15 in Geneva, when the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France -- plus Germany will meet with Iranian officials.

Rouhani and Obama may have melted some permafrost together, but a routine of phone chats appeared unlikely. “I certainly don’t expect that there will be regular interactions,” the White House official told reporters. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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