President Barack Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone late on Friday, the highest-level contact between the two countries in three decades.
A week of hectic diplomacy in New York has raised hopes that a deal can be reached on Iran’s disputed nuclear ambitions within a year. The stakes are high, the pitfalls deep but the rewards are potentially momentous for Iran, the region and beyond.
The 15-minute phone call is the culmination of a dramatic shift in tone between Iran and the United States, which cut diplomatic relations with Iran a year after the 1979 revolution that toppled US ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and led to the US Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran.
The mutual expressions of goodwill by Iran and the United States will be tested when they meet in Geneva in mid-October after agreeing to fast-track multilateral negotiations.
The call between the two president came after Iran held “constructive” talks on Friday with the UN’s nuclear watchdog over a stalled inquiry into Tehran’s atomic activity. It was the first such meeting since the election of Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, in June.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wants Iran to address allegations that before 2003, and possibly since, it conducted research on designing a ballistic missile cone suitable for a nuclear warhead.
The agency has failed in 10 meetings since early last year to press Iran to grant it access to personnel, sites and documents related to these activities.
Tehran maintains that the allegations were based in large part on information provided to the IAEA from spy agencies like the CIA and Israel’s Mossad, intelligence which Iran calls “baseless”.
Still, Iran, which insists its nuclear programme is solely for peaceful purposes, has pledged since Mr Rouhani took office in early August to expand cooperation with the UN agency.
On a separate but more pressured track, the US and its European allies welcomed what they called a “significant shift” in Iran’s tone on its nuclear programme after talks at the UN General Assembly in New York on Thursday night.
In tandem, Mr Rouhani yesterday said he wanted talks with major powers on Iran’s nuclear programme to yield results soon. “Our goal is resolving problems, our goal is step-by-step-creating trust between governments and peoples.”
The format will be between the Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and his counterparts from other major world powers. These will take place between Iran and the so-called 5+1, comprising the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Britain, Russia, China, France, plus Germany.
Iran and the US held their first substantive high-level meeting since the 1979 Islamic revolution on Thursday night on the sidelines a seven-nation meeting at the UN which both sides hailed as a fresh start.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, and Mr Zarif shook hands, signalling a breakthrough in a relationship that has been frozen for more than three decades.
Each was optimistic but guarded. “We had a very constructive meeting,” Mr Kerry said. “Needless to say, one meeting and a change in tone, which was welcome, doesn’t answer those questions [about Iran’s nuclear programme]”.
Mr Zarif, a well-regarded, US-educated career diplomat who spent most of his adult life in the US, said the “discussions were very substantive, businesslike”, but also sounded a cautionary note while insisting on swift relief from choking Western sanctions.
“I am satisfied with this first step. Now we have to see whether we can match our positive words with serious deeds so we can we can move forward,” he said. The sides agreed to “jump-start the process” so that a deal can be reached within a year.
Sanctions have slashed Iran’s vital oil exports by more than half, restricted its international bank transfers, devalued its currency and sent inflation surging.
Mr Rouhani, who was elected on a promise to ease Iran’s international isolation, predicted this week that a deal could be in place within three to six months.
Mr Kerry said if Iran takes rapid measures to cooperate, Washington could begin lifting sanctions within months. “It’s possible to have a deal sooner than that depending on how forthcoming and clear Iran is prepared to be,” he said.
Mr Rouhani is in an understandable rush, whether to assuage popular pressure for sanctions relief or because he fears any delay will trigger a political backlash from impatient and mistrustful conservative rivals in Tehran.
Vitally, however, he has tentative support from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to explore whether “heroic flexibility” can clinch a long and elusive deal with the “Great Satan” America.
“Khamenei does not want Iran to be at open conflict with the West, nor does he want it to be a supplicant to the US,” said Akbar Ganji, an Iranian dissident journalist. “He is signalling that rapprochement is possible, but not at the price of abandoning Iran’s resistance to Western hegemony.”
Mr Rouhani’s maiden performance at the UN has won plaudits at home from moderate and hardline media alike while Mr Obama also garnered some rare praise in the fractious Iranian press.
Tehran’s moderate Donya-e-Eqtesad daily greeted Mr Obama’s “different tone” while the conservative Jomhuri Islamic revelled in his declaration that he does not seek “regime change” in Iran.
Those plaudits were not universal. Iran’s hardline Kayhan daily scoffed at Mr Obama’s “jabbering against Iran”, while churlishly saying his declared respect for Tehran to operate a peaceful nuclear programme, was a “sign of Iran’s power”.