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 call. 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.
"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.
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 can stop the escalation of tensions.
Rouhani 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 Washington and Tehran.
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 the White House, Rouhani in a limousine on the way to the airport after diplomatic meetings at the United Nations -- marked perhaps the most hopeful steps toward reconciliation in decades.
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."
At issue most directly at present are suspicions outlined in reports from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has worked secretly on trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran says it isn't interested in atomic arms and only wants to develop nuclear technology for peaceful use.
The White House had reached out to Tehran earlier this month to offer a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Monday or Tuesday, but Rouhani declined at the time. But the U.S. and five negotiating partners emerged from a meeting with Iran Thursday declaring that a "window of opportunity has opened" to peacefully settle the nuclear standoff.
The White House said Iranian officials reached out Friday and indicated Rouhani would like to speak to Obama before leaving New York, and Obama's aides quickly arranged the call.
Rouhani told reporters at the U.N., "I want it to be the case that this trip will be a first step and a beginning for better and constructive relations with countries of the world as well as a first step for a better relationship between the two great nations of Iran and the United States of America."
Obama said he and Rouhani have directed their teams to work quickly to pursue an agreement. He said the U.S. will coordinate closely with its allies -- including Israel, which considers that Iranian nuclear weapon capability is a deadly threat. Iranian and U.N. officials have agreed to meet again Oct. 28.