Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

After 34 years of diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the presidents of the two countries made direct contact with one another last Friday for the first time since 1979. President Barack Obama placed a telephone call to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani as Rouhani was heading to Kennedy Airport in New York, after spending a week at the United Nations.

The call, which occurred around 2:30 p.m., lasted 15 minutes. Iranian officials requested the phone call, and the White House, encouraged by recent public statements from the moderate Rouhani, readily obliged. This call marked the first conversation between the two countries since the removal of the Shah of Iran from power in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis.

Earlier in the week, both leaders delivered remarks to the United Nations General Assembly in which both leaders expressed a conciliatory tone and a willingness to work together to solve Iran’s nuclear issue. Both were expected to attend a luncheon on Tuesday where a potentially historic handshake between the two could have taken place; however, President Rouhani skipped out on the event at the last minute. Iranian officials claimed that a meeting between the two leaders at this point would have been premature and would have caused complications with conservative hard-liners back in Iran. On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, had a meeting that was described to be productive.

According to an American official who was on the Sept. 26 call, the two presidents spoke about the nuclear issue, with Obama acknowledging Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy but demanding a halt to any enrichment of weapons-grade uranium. Obama also pressed Rouhani on the detainment of two Americans in Iran. The two ended the call by exchanging farewells in the other’s native tongue.

Rouhani returned to Tehran on Saturday morning to a crowd of mostly jubilant supporters. However, as Rouhani waved to the crowd through the sunroof of his car, a small group of hardline protestors began pelting the vehicle with eggs and one shoe.

“Our people are awake, death to America!” chanted the protestors, suggesting an unwillingness among Iran’s hardline factions to improve relations with the U.S. after decades of hostility.

While he was in New York, Rouhani and the Iranian delegation struck a moderate and cooperative tone with the rest of the world leaders. He expressed a general desire to reach a settlement on the nuclear issue and wipe away the sanctions that have severely affected the country’s economy and the lives of daily Iranians. Rouhani’s position is reportedly backed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran who has the final say in all political matters. Though no proposals were presented at the U.N. by either side on the nuclear issue, talks will continue between Iran and six Western powers. The parties are to meet again at a summit in Geneva in mid-October.

President Obama, speaking from the White House after Friday’s phone call, tried to assure Israel that diplomacy from Iran does not mean the U.S. will abandon Israel’s security or interests. Israel and other U.S.-allied Arab countries in the Middle East are wary of Iran’s sincerity and the potential geopolitical consequences of normalized relations between Iran and the U.S.

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Beyond the Bubble