President Barack Obama spoke with his Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani, on the phone Friday afternoon, marking the first time leaders from the two countries have spoken directly in more than three decades.
Their exchange comes as both countries eye a diplomatic solution to their years-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. “I do believe that there is a basis for resolution,” Obama said from the White House Briefing Room. “Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons. President Rouhani has indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons. I’ve made clear that we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations.”
It was the first direct contact between an American and Iranian president since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, something Obama said “underscores the deep mistrust between our countries” but “also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.”
The two leaders previously traded letters, and considered a face-to-face meeting at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week. Obama administration officials said Tuesday that a meeting “proved to be too complicated for the Iranians to do at this point.” On Friday, Iranian officials told their American counterparts that Rouhani was open to speaking with Obama before he returned to Iran. A senior administration official said the call took place shortly after 2:30 p.m. Friday afternoon and lasted roughly 15 minutes. While the bulk of the call focused on the nuclear issue, the official added that Obama noted the United States’ concern about three American citizens who have been held within Iran. The official described the call as “cordial,” saying Obama opened the call by congratulating Rouhani on his recent election.
In his remarks, Obama said a negotiated settlement “could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.” But the president added that the road ahead is not simple. “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.”
According to the senior administration official, Obama said goodbye to Rouhani in Farsi after the Iranian president said goodbye in English.
The Iranians provided their own recap of the phone conversation on Rouhani’s Twitter page:
White House photographer Pete Souza later tweeted this image of Obama on the phone with Rouhani: