This past week for the first time in 34 years the United States and Iran took the first steps towards the resumption of some sort of thaw in diplomatic relations, with the ultimate step being President Barack Obama's phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, which Obama announced at a Friday press conference at the White House. The phone call was the first direct contact between Iran and the U.S in since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The day before Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The leaders of the "estranged nations" spoke for 15 minutes; the call began at 2:30 pm on Friday afternoon. The two presidents each spoke in different languages with the help of interpreters; the Iranian President spoke in Farsi. However, they exchanged goodbyes in each other's language; Obama said "khodahafez," which is "goodbye" in farsi, while Rouhani wished Obama in English to "have a good day, Mr president."
Rouhani spoke to Obama as he was travelling towards the airport in New York to return from United Nations General Assembly back to Iran. The Iranian President's wanted President Obama to call him after he would not meet with Obama at the UN General Assembly even briefly despite White House requests, because he was not prepared.
Right after the phone call President Obama spoke at a press conference in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, where he announced at the start of his statement about the call. Obama stated; "I reiterated to President Rouhani what I said in New York. 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."
The President announced that the administration is going to attempt diplomatic efforts with Iran. Obama said; "I've directed Secretary Kerry to continue pursuing this diplomatic effort with the Iranian government. We had constructive discussions yesterday in New York with our partners -- the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China -- together with the Iranian Foreign Minister. Going forward, President Rouhani and I have directed our teams to continue working expeditiously, in cooperation with the P5-plus-1, to pursue an agreement. And throughout this process, we'll stay in close touch with our friends and allies in the region, including Israel."
President Obama knows that an agreement with Iran over nuclear weapons could solve the diplomatic problems between the two countries. Obama explained; "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 interests and mutual respect. It would also help facilitate a better relationship between Iran and the international community, as well as others in the region -- one that would help the Iranian people fulfill their extraordinary potential, but also help us to address other concerns that could bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East."
President Obama also acknowledged the historic magnitude of the call, saying; "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."
The day before Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, Sept. 26 for an informal meeting. Kerry told reporters after the meeting; "I think all of us were pleased that Foreign Minister Zarif came and made a presentation to us, which was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out, with respect to the possibilities for the future."
Rouhani was elected in June and took over Iranian leadership in August, right after Obama and Housani exchanged letters, which was the first step in the thaw.
For now most of what Rouhani has done has been diplomatic rhetorical overtures, a "charm offensive," the Iranian regime has not done anything tangibly different than their predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, although he did announce the release of 80 political prisoners on Monday, Sept. 23.
The Iranian President was attempting to make an impression on the world's leaders in his address on Tuesday, Sept. 24 at the United Nations General Assembly. Rouhani has been indicating especially since the Syrian crisis a willingness to end their nuclear program through a diplomatic agreement in exchange for having the international economic sanctions imposed on Iran lifted.
In his short 25-minute speech he mentioned the word "peace" 19 times even in reference to their nuclear program and also denounced the economic sanctions imposed on Iran. Rouhani stated; "Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region… Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran's peaceful nuclear program."
President Obama also indicated a cautious openness to pursuing a diplomatic agreement with Iran in his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday Sept. 24, just hours before Rouhani spoke.
U.S. allies, Canada and Israel have both expressed skepticism over Iran's sudden willingness for a rapprochement with the West. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated; "On the rapprochement, one will see. I certainly would not fault President Obama and our allies for trying, but my sincere advice would be when it comes to the government of Iran we should carefully monitor deeds far more than words."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been far more vocal in warning the U.S. against the "Wolf in sheep's clothing," and called the address "a cynical speech full of hypocrisy." Netanyahu issued a statement after Rouhani's speech saying; "We will not be fooled by half-measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran's continual pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the world should not be fooled either."
President Obama should heed advice and remain cautious at all times while negotiating with Iran. Although the phone call and steps inch towards a diplomatic thaw, Iran and the U.S. have been at odds since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent Iranian hostage crisis that lasted for over a year from November 1980 until January 1981. There is still a lot a "distrust" as Obama mentioned in his UNGA speech between both nations, and Obama risks alienating allies especially Israel who are not as open and believing in the 180 degree turn in Iranian policy. Time will tell if Iran is truly sincere or it all a "smokescreen" as Netanyahu believes.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.