President Obama spoke by phone Friday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first contact between the two countries' leaders in over three decades, a historic conversation the White House is billing as the foundation for a deal on Tehran's nuclear program.
Obama, who famously vowed in 2007 that he would pursue discussions with Iran, championed the 15-minute phone call with his Iranian counterpart while trying to mollify concerns from lawmakers and U.S. ally Israel.
“We’re mindful of all the challenges ahead,” Obama said from the White House briefing room. “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 conversation, which took place through translators, focused primarily on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, according to a senior administration official.
The two leaders will not communicate routinely, the administration official said. Instead, future negotiations will occur between the P5+1 group — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — and Iran.
Iran has long said it's attempting to build a peaceful energy program, but the U.S., E.U., and U.N. believe Tehran is building nuclear weapons — and have enacted tough economic sanctions.
Obama’s statements come on the heels of diplomatic overtures from the newly-elected Rouhani, whom Iran watchers see as a moderate. The Iranian leader has said Iran will not build nuclear weapons and has called for a “constructive” dialogue with the west.
The White House said that it had discussed the possibility of the two leaders having a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week, but Iran eventually rejected the offer as “too complicated.”
In his address to the U.N. Obama said he welcomed the new tone from Tehran and had called on Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue talks.
The diplomatic breakthrough will likely spark controversy on Capitol Hill and with U.S. ally Israel. Many lawmakers have warned the president to be skeptical of a detente with Iran.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., last week penned a letter to Obama calling for him to maintain a tough line against Iran’s nuclear program.
“Whatever nice words we may hear from Mr. Rouhani, it is Iranian action that matters,” they said.
“Our damaging sanctions have gotten Rouhani on the phone. We must increase the economic pressure until Iran stops its nuclear drive,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, added on Friday.
The White House was also quick to acknowledge Israeli concerns.
“The Israeli government has every right to be skeptical of the Iranian government,” the senior administration official said. “We’re trying to achieve a resolution … with Iran coming in line with its obligations and not developing [a nuclear program].”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has argued that Iran is hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, will visit the White House on Monday. Israeli officials fear Iran may be entering talks to stall for time while they pursue building nuclear weapons.
The president Friday looked to assure both lawmakers and international leaders that he wasn’t blindly entering into talks with Iran.
“The test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions,” he said, “which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place.”
Rouhani's official Twitter account also shared details about the phone call.
"In phone convo, President #Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political #will to rapidly solve the #nuclear issue," read a tweet.
Another added that: "#Obama, #Rouhani agreed ground shud b prepared 4 solving of other issues, incl regional matters. FMs tasked w/ follow-up to expedite coop."
The twitter feed also highlighted a lighter moment in the call: "In a phone conversation b/w #Iranian & #US Presidents just now: @HassanRouhani: "Have a Nice Day!" @BarackObama: 'Thank you. Khodahafez.'"
Susan Crabtree contributed.
This story was published at 3:54 p.m. and has been updated.