Obama Speaks To Iranian President Rouhani

In a press conference Wednesday, President Obama said he had spoken with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by telephone, the first such contact between the leaders of the two nations since 1979.

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For the first time in more than three decades, an American president has spoken directly to the president of Iran. It wasn't a face-to-face conversation. Iranians passed on that chance when the two leaders were in New York this week for the general assembly of the United Nations. But President Obama did speak this afternoon by phone with Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani. Afterwards, the president told reporters at the White House, he sees an opportunity to reach a comprehensive agreement on Iran's nuclear program.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. And, Scott, how did this call come about?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, as you mentioned, Robert, the administration had been open to a face-to-face meeting with Rouhani at the U.N. this week, but that proved too complicated for the Iranians. They have some challenging domestic politics they have to deal with. But President Rouhani was still in New York today, and the Iranians let it be known that he was open to a telephone call before he left the United States. So the call was set up and the two leaders spoke for about 15 minutes this afternoon. Most of the call was through interpreters, but I'm told Rouhani spoke a little bit of English towards the end and that President Obama signed off in Farsi.

SIEGEL: Well, the call alone signals a remarkable thought in U.S./Iranian relations, but is there something more here than just a shift in tone?

HORSLEY: Well, of course, that's the big question. The United States has said it will be watching what Iran does, not just what it says. But certainly, the administration has been encouraged by what the Iranians had been saying of late, that they have no desire for nuclear weapons, that their nuclear program is peaceful and most importantly, that they are willing to discuss ways they can demonstrate that to the international community.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: So Obama says he's directed his team, lead by Secretary of State John Kerry, to work quickly on a nuclear agreement that would be, in his words, meaningful, transparent and verifiable.

SIEGEL: Scott, Iran, obviously, wants to get out from under international sanctions which have taken a big toll on its economy. What would that take?

HORSLEY: The White House, by the way, says those sanctions are what has brought Iran to this new-found willingness to negotiate and may have, in fact, contributed to the election of President Rouhani in Iran. So the administration takes a good deal of credit in sort of marshaling the international community to make those sanctions, something that really hurts. But that said, Obama has said he does see way for Iran to get relief from the sanctions once it has shown it is willing to live up to its international obligations with regard to its nuclear program.

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: So the U.S. will be working with the five permanent members of the Security Council, as well as Germany, in its dealings with Iran. The next big milestone meeting will be next month. And Obama said he'll also be keeping Israel informed about the negotiations. Obviously, the Israelis have a big stake in these talks, and this will likely be a topic of conversation when Obama meets on Monday with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.

SIEGEL: OK. It's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

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