WASHINGTON -- The United States and Iran took a dramatic step toward ending more than three decades of estrangement Friday when President Obama phoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and they agreed to work toward resolving the deep dispute over global suspicions that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
The last direct conversation between the leaders of the two countries was in 1979, before the Iranian Revolution toppled the pro-U.S. shah and brought Islamic militants to power. Militants overran the U.S. Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, from Nov. 4, 1979 to Jan. 20, 1981.
Obama said the long break between the two nations "underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history."
The phone call capped a week of seismic alterations in the relationship, revolving around Rouhani's participation in the annual U.N. meeting of world leaders. The night before the two leaders spoke, U.S. and European diplomats had hailed a "very significant shift" in Iran's attitude and tone in Thursday's first talks on the nuclear standoff since April.
Rouhani, at a news conference earlier Friday in New York, linked the United States and Iran as "great nations," a remarkable reversal from the anti-American rhetoric of his predecessors, who called the United States the "Great Satan." The Iranian expressed hope that, at the very least, the two governments could stop the escalation of tensions.
In fact, Rouhani reached out to arrange the 15-minute call with Obama. The White House said an encouraging meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was a crucial factor.
Describing the call at the White House, Obama said, "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." Iran's nuclear program has been a major concern, not only to the United States, but also to other Middle Eastern nations -- especially Israel -- and to the world at large.
The new Iranian president repeatedly has stressed that he has "full authority" in his outreach to the United States, a reference to the apparent backing by Iran's ultimate decision-maker, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Such support would give Rouhani a political mandate that could extend beyond the nuclear issue to possible broader efforts at ending the long estrangement between Tehran and Washington -- and the West in general.
It remains unclear, however, if obstacles will be raised by Iran's hard-line forces, such as the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which has warned Rouhani about moving too fast with his overtures to the West.