Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Obama-Rouhani Phone Conversation Is A 30-Year First


There's been a slight thaw in the deep freeze that's characterized relations between the United States and Iran. President Obama spoke by phone yesterday with Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani. The conversation was short, it was conducted through translators and while President Rouhani was on his way to the airport, but it was still the first time in more than 30 years that a U.S. president has spoken to a sitting president of Iran.

For more on this conversation, we're joined by Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment. Karim, thanks so much for being with us.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Always a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And how do you rate the significance of this?

SADJADPOUR: Well, I think you put it brilliantly. It's a slight thaw in a deep freeze. Yesterday was a huge deal, especially for Iranians, in that ten years ago if you were a journalist in Tehran, you could go to prison for advocating talks with the United States. Now the president of your country is talking to the president of the United States.

That said I think this is the first step in what could be a very long journey. It's not going to happen overnight, that the two sides put away their mistrust and enmities.

SIMON: One thing I think people are beginning to notice this morning is that President Obama said that the United States respects the right of Iranians to peaceful nuclear energy.

SADJADPOUR: This has been a long-held U.S. position that Iran is entitled to a civilian nuclear energy program, but it's not entitled to a nuclear weapons program. And Iran has long stated that it's opposed for religious and moral reasons to nuclear weapons and the big question is whether there'll be a halfway meeting point between the two sides.

And I think what really complicates the U.S./Iran nuclear conflict is the fact that Iran is belligerent towards Israel and in the context of domestic American politics, that's very difficult for the Congress to countenance Iran both having this objectionable position towards Israel and having ambitions of an advance nuclear program.

SIMON: I think a lot of Americans would like to know, is this new president of Iran Gorbachev?

SADJADPOUR: I would argue he's not Gorbachev, in that his goal is to really preserve the longevity of the Islamic Republic, but is opposed to a lot of his ideological counterparts in Tehran. He's a more pragmatic figure. He believes that in order to sustain the revolution, we need to start to put our economic interest before ideological interest.

But he's not someone who's interested in reforming the Islamic Republic into a democracy and he's certainly not someone who's interested in reforming the Islamic Republic out of power like Gorbachev perhaps unwittingly did.

SIMON: Well, what do you see as the next step to judge the sincerity of what's going on?

SADJADPOUR: Well, the next step, there's going to be negotiations taking place between the so-called P5+1 and Iran, which includes the United States, in October in Geneva. And this is basically a confidence-building process. But I think what's changed in the dynamics is the fact that Iran really has a sense of urgency.

They're faced with incredibly draconian international sanctions which have cut their oil production and exports in half, and then you look at the world from President Obama's eyes and when the rest of the Middle East is really unraveling, Iran presents Obama an opportunity to possibly leave a tangible positive diplomatic legacy.

SIMON: Karim Sadjadpour at the Carnegie Endowment. Thanks so much.

SADJADPOUR: Anytime. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.