When it came to the first conversation between American and Iranian presidents since 1979, Hassan Rouhani again had the upper hand on President Obama.
Obama called a press conference this afternoon to make the bold announcement, but Rouhani — who has become an avid social media user even as his people are restricted from using such sites — scooped the American president on his Twitter account.
“In a phone conversation b/w #Iranian & #US Presidents just now: @HassanRouhani: ‘Have a Nice Day!’ @BarackObama: ‘Thank you. Khodahafez,'” Rouhani tweeted. “In phone convo, President #Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political #will to rapidly solve the #nuclear issue.”
Then: “@HassanRouhani to @BarackObama: I express my gratitude for your #hospitality and your phone call. Have a good day Mr President.”
That made clear it was Obama who picked up the phone, even as Rouhani turned down a request earlier in the week to meet with Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Senior administration officials brushed off that denied meeting as “too complicated for Iranians to do at this point.”
Obama was expected to remark on the continuing resolution passed by the Senate today, but began his remarks with the Iran announcement.
“Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. I reiterated to President Rouhani what I said in New York. 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 said.
“…Going forward, President Rouhani and I have directed our teams to continue working expeditiously in cooperation with the P-5-plus-1 to pursue an agreement. And throughout this process, we’ll stay in close touch with our friends and allies in the region, including Israel.”
Obama was determined to cement a historical marker for himself. “The very fact that this was the first communications 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,” he said. “I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution. Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons. President Rouhani has indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.”
“…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. I also communicated to President Rouhani my deep respect for the Iranian people.”
A senior administration official said in a late afternoon conference call with reporters that the call was about 15 minutes long and “Obama opened by congratulating President Rouhani on his election as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
“He noted the history of mistrust between our two nations, but also noted the constructive statements that President Rouhani had made since his election, including over the last several days in New York,” the official said.
Rouhani took a whirlwind turn through the Big Apple during the General Assembly this week, sitting down with think tanks and news outlets to gush a supposedly reformist message and claim Iran has no designs on nuclear weapons.
CNN even aired an interview in which the network claimed that the new president admitted that the Holocaust happened.
“I have said before that I am not a historian. And that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the holocaust it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews is reprehensible and condemnable,” the network’s translator said Rouhani said. “Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn. The taking of human life is contemptible. It makes no difference whether that life is Jewish life, Christian, or Muslim. For us it is the same. The taking of human life is something our religion rejects. But this does not mean that on the other hand you can say Nazis committed crimes against a group now therefore they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This, too, is an act that should be condemned. There should be an even-handed discussion.”
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency cried foul at the airbrushed translation and the Wall Street Journal verified the Persian version: “I have said before that I am not a historian and historians should specify, state and explain the aspects of historical events, but generally we fully condemn any kind of crime committed against humanity throughout the history, including the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and non-Jews, the same way that if today any crime is committed against any nation or any religion or any people or any belief, we condemn that crime and genocide. Therefore, what the Nazis did is condemned, (but) the aspects that you talk about, clarification of these aspects is a duty of the historians and researchers, I am not a history scholar.”
As he parsed his words carefully about Holocaust denial, Rouhani carefully danced around sticky questions with American audiences, spinning flowery language about opening a new chapter and extending a hand of friendship even as every inkling of the Islamic Republic’s traditional policies hung between the lines.
His interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose, for instance, hinted that the meeting with Obama wasn’t as “complicated” as it was hinged on preconditions.
“Whenever the prep work is completed, I believe that it’s possible to have a meeting. Perhaps if we had more time here in New York, we may have been able to coordinate what was necessary for that meeting to take place,” Rouhani said. “…So we must make every effort so that the first high official meeting between the two countries will definitely yield positive results.”
After his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif at the P5 + 1 ministerial group on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the meeting as “very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to possibilities of the future.”
Zarif has also joined Twitter as part of Iran’s charm offensive.
“I think all of us were pleased that the Foreign Minister came today, that he did put some possibilities on the table. Now it’s up to people to do the hard work of trying to fill out what those possibilities could do,” Kerry said.
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that “Iran thinks that soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb.”
“Like North Korea before it, Iran will try to remove sanctions by offering cosmetic concessions, while preserving its ability to rapidly build a nuclear weapon at a time of its choosing,” Netanyahu continued. “Israel would welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons. But we will not be fooled by half-measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran’s continual pursuit of nuclear weapons. And the world should not be fooled either.”
The prime minister added that he’s looking forward to discussing Obama’s views on this in Washington next week.
On Wednesday, he called Rouhani’s address “a cynical speech that was full of hypocrisy.”
“Rouhani spoke of human rights even as Iranian forces are participating in the large-scale slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria,” Netanyahu said. “He condemned terrorism even as the Iranian regime is using terrorism in dozens of countries around the world. He spoke of a nuclear program for civilian purposes even as an IAEA report determines that the program has military dimensions and when any rational person understands that Iran, one of the most oil-rich nations, is not investing capital in ballistic missiles and underground nuclear facilities in order to produce electricity. It is no coincidence that the speech lacked both any practical proposal to stop Iran’s military nuclear program and any commitment to fulfill UN Security Council decisions.”
The Israeli delegation did not stay for Rouhani’s speech “in order not to grant legitimacy to a regime that does not recognize the existence of the Holocaust and which publicly declares its desire to wipe the State of Israel off the map.”
“As the Prime Minister of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, I could not allow the Israeli delegation to be part of a cynical public relations ploy by a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for our destruction,” added Netanyahu, who addresses the General Assembly on Tuesday.
The prime minister noted that a decade ago, Rouhani bragged about increasing the size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment while simultaneously leading the Islamic Republic’s negotiations with the West that sought to stem Iran’s nuclear program.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted on CBS this morning that the progression with Iran warrants “a little bit of skepticism since Mr. Rouhani is the same guy that bragged about how he deceived the negotiators back in 2000 and 2004 when he was the negotiator for the Iranians where he carried on conversations, and they went from 150 centrifuges to a thousand.”
“So I would be — make sure that every step of the way it’s verifiable,” he said.
After his election this summer, Rouhani laughed off warnings from Netanyahu that he was committed to doing whatever necessary to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
“When some [the United States and Israel] say that all options are on the table and when a miserable regional country [Israel] says such things, it makes you laugh,” Rouhani told a group of Iran-Iraq War veterans, according to an AFP report. “Who are the Zionists to threaten us?”