In Tehran, surprising news of presidents’ conversation greeted largely with optimism


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leaves Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport upon his arrival from New York. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
September 28, 2013

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani returned from his trip to the U.N. General Assembly in New York to a range of reactions at home Saturday, from supporters who hailed his diplomatic efforts to Basij militia members who hurled eggs and a shoe at him and his entourage after they landed.

The scene at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, just hours after the news of the historic telephone call between Rouhani and President Obama, underscored the delicacy of rekindling diplomatic ties after 34 years of estrangement between the two countries.

Many Iranians seemed surprised but pleased by the possibility that the long-troubled relationship could soon be mended.

“Hassan went to New York to bring back a message from Hussein,” Ali Zamani, a 52-year-old bank manager, said jokingly, referring to the first name of the Iranian president and Obama’s middle name. Hassan and Hussein are central figures in Shiite Islam, brothers who are revered as saints.

The Friday announcement of the call, made via Rouhani’s Twitter account and verified by Iranian state media, capped a month of diplomatic moments between the United States and Iran.

At a news briefing on Friday, President Obama said that he spoke by phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, another step in a warming relationship both leaders have said they hope ends with a diplomatic resolution to Iran's controversial nuclear program. (The Washington Post)

Representatives from both countries discussed their openness to direct talks in the days leading up to the General Assembly, but when Rouhani did not attend a luncheon for heads of state, many feared momentum would slow.

Newspapers picked up Friday’s news with evocative headlines. “Obama’s last-minute call to Rouhani,” the reformist daily Shargh declared over a story that hailed the presidents for agreeing to prepare “the grounds for cooperation as soon as possible.”

Most dailies published large photographs of Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on their front pages Saturday. The images of the two men smiling were taken at a meeting of top diplomats held to discuss ways to resolve international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

Hard-line officials here wasted no time in offering their interpretation of the events.

“The world’s respect for our president is a result of our nation’s resistance,” Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, told the Fars News Agency on Saturday.

“Obama and Rouhani’s telephone conversation shows Iran’s power. When the U.S. president wants to talk with our president, it demonstrates that Iran’s position in the world is important,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, told reporters in Tehran.

Although many Iranians were visibly excited by the prospect of renewed relations with the country’s longtime foe, others were skeptical.

“Yesterday, we said death to America. Now we’re supposed to say hello to America? That’s not easy,” said Ali Jaffarian, a taxi driver and veteran of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, who was reading a morning newspaper on Taleghani Street, site of the former U.S. Embassy.

At a handicraft shop across the street, employee Reza Habibi said business has been slow for years. “So I was very excited when I heard this morning that Obama and Rouhani spoke,” Habibi said.

He said the shop, which has been here for more than 50 years, was opened to tend to embassy employees and their foreign guests. “I pray to God that the embassy opens again,” he said. “That would be the best sign that things are getting better.”

The embassy grounds, which were stormed in 1979 by revolutionary students who took 52 American citizens hostage and held them for 444 days, are under the control of organizations linked to the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The site is closed to the public except on special occasions when people can visit an exhibition inside what is known locally as the “Den of Espionage.”

A guard at the compound’s front gate said Rouhani and Obama’s phone call would have little impact.

“Nothing is clear yet,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity associated with the compound. “If it’s going to be like it was during the shah’s time, when America tried to tell us what to do, then I don’t think there will be any change in relations.”

“Until the Zionists no longer have control over the American government, there won’t be real diplomacy. But my opinion is that I agree with whatever our supreme leader decides,” said an employee at a bookstore on the southeast corner of the embassy compound called the ’57 Cultural House. On the Iranian calendar, 1357 corresponds with 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution.

But for many Iranians, revolutionary fervor is becoming a relic of the country’s past. Some said the Rouhani-Obama phone call has them hoping that international sanctions might be lifted soon.

“There are still lots of hard-line people who are ready to die for the cause,” said Jaffarian, the taxi driver. “But now, most of us just want a better life.”

Jason Rezaian has been The Post’s correspondent in Tehran since 2012. He was previously a freelance writer based in Tehran.
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