US, Iran leaders talk for first time since 1979

  • President Barack Obama gestures while making a statement regarding the budget fight in Congress and foreign policy challenges, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. The president said the debt ceiling breach far worse than a government shutdown and would effectively shutter economy. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

    President Barack Obama gestures while making a statement regarding the budget fight in Congress and foreign policy challenges, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. The president said the debt ceiling breach far worse than a government shutdown and would effectively shutter economy. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a news conference at the Millennium Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a news conference at the Millennium Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

  • President Barack Obama gestures while making a statement regarding the budget fight in Congress and foreign policy challenges, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. The president said the debt ceiling breach far worse than a government shutdown and would effectively shutter economy. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a news conference at the Millennium Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

WASHINGTON — Breaking a third-of-a-century diplomatic freeze, President Barack Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone on Friday and, in a historic shift from years of unwavering animosity, agreed to work toward resolving their deep dispute over Tehran’s nuclear efforts.

Rouhani, who earlier in the day called the United States a “great” nation, reached out to arrange the 15-minute call. The last direct conversation between the leaders of the two countries was in 1979 before the Iranian Revolution toppled the pro-U.S. shah and brought Islamic militants to power.

Obama said the long break “underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.”

“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,” Obama told reporters at the White House. Iran’s nuclear program has been a major concern not only to the United States but to other Middle Eastern nations — especially Israel — and to the world at large.

Rouhani, at a news conference in New York, linked the U.S. and Iran as “great nations,” a remarkable reversal from the anti-American rhetoric of his predecessors, and he expressed hope that at the very least the two governments could stop the escalation of tensions.

The new Iranian president has repeatedly stressed that he has “full authority” in his outreach to the U.S., a reference to the apparent backing by Iran’s ultimate decision-maker, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Such support would give Rouhani a political mandate that could extend beyond the nuclear issue to possible broader efforts at ending the long estrangement between Tehran and Washington — and the West in general.

It remains unclear, however, whether obstacles will be raised by Iran’s hard-line forces such the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which had warned Rouhani about moving too fast with his overtures with the West.

“Friday’s telephone call — Obama at his desk in the Oval Office, Rouhani in a limousine on the way to the airport after diplomatic meetings at the United Nations — marked one of the most hopeful steps toward reconciliation in decades. The White House said an encouraging meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif this week was a crucial factor in the thaw.

“This is part of a pattern that has led to a real breakthrough,” said Iran scholar Gary Sick at Columbia University. “And basically what’s happening is that the ice that has covered the U.S.-Iran relationship for over the last 30 years is starting to break. And when ice starts to break up, it goes faster than you think. This is breathtaking.”

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