By Rebecca Shabad - 09/27/13 07:58 PM EDT
President Obama spoke over the phone Friday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in what was the first communication between the two countries' leaders since 1979.
“I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution,” Obama
said in the White House briefing room. “We have a responsibility to pursue
diplomacy. We have a unique opportunity to make progress with Iran.”
Separately, Rouhani confirmed the call with Obama on his Twitter account.
They spoke around 2:30 p.m. for about 15 minutes, according to a senior administration official. The Iranians reached out to the White House today before Rouhani left New York for Iran.
"The two leaders agreed that their teams should work expeditiously to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue, again, in consultation with the P5-plus-1," the official said. "I think both leaders did express the need to move with a sense of urgency, and they both agreed to direct their teams to move forward with a sense of urgency to resolve this issue given the importance to us and the importance to Iran in terms of achieving a peaceful resolution."
P5-plus-1 includes the the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members--the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia--plus Germany.
Rouhani has exchanged several letters with Obama since being elected Iran's leader in June, and is signaling a willingness to negotiate with the United States over his country's disputed nuclear program.
Obama has responded with overtures of his own, and on Friday said he has directed Secretary of State John Kerry to take charge of U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.
“The test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions,” the president said.
Obama and Rouhani had been expected to meet this week at the United Nations General Assembly, but Iran turned down an invitation to meet at the margins of the event.
Iranian state-run TV said Rouhani declined to attend a U.N. luncheon where Obama was present because alcohol was served. White House officials, however, said Iran turned down the offer because it was
Despite the missed chance at a meeting, Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart in person Thursday
in what was the highest-level meeting between the two countries so far
in these talks.
The diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program is likely to shift into a higher gear now that there has been direct contact between Obama and Rouhani.
Iran has never admitted to producing nuclear weapons, but international agencies and other countries have evidence they have been on that path.
"I believe that whatever result we achieve through negotiations my government will have the full backing of all the main branches of power in Iran as well as the support of the people of Iran,” Rouhani said at a Friday news conference at the U.N.
He said he’d like to reach a deal “within a very short period of time.”
White House officials say they believe there is a real opening for diplomacy because Iran is desperate to ease the damaging international sanctions on its economy.
“It could also serve as a major step forward in the relationship between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said.
Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee commented on the news of the phone call.
"Our damaging sanctions have gotten Rouhani on the phone," said Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) in a statement.
Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), top Democrat on the committee, tweeted his reaction to the news.
The call between Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani is important step to a peaceful end to Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. But Iran will have to make meaningful and verifiable steps to freeze and ultimately end its nuclear weapons program."
The two countries ended their diplomatic relationship in 1980, after the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Iran and the U.S. had previously been close allies for nearly four decades after the 1940s.
After Obama spoke, Rouhani continued to tweet about their phone conversation.
“I express my respect for you and people of Iran. I’m convinced that relations between Iran and the U.S. will greatly affect region. If we can make progress on nuclear file, other issues such as Syria, will certainly be positively affected,” he tweeted.
“I express my gratitude for your hospitality and your phone call. Have a good day Mr. President.”
The warming of the Iran-U.S. relationship has major implications for other countries in the Middle East, especially Israel. Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said as president that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”
When he was still in power last year, Israel hinted at a preemptive attack on Iran to defend itself against Iran’s nuclear weapons.
Obama will discuss Iran’s nuclear program with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Sept. 30.
— This story was last updated at 7:54 p.m. It was last updated at 5:21 p.m.