Night had fallen in the Iranian capital, Tehran, as Hasan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, sent a message via his now-famous Twitter account: He had just gotten off the telephone with President Barack Obama, who had called him.
“Wow, this is fantastic,” said Armin Kay, an engineer among those reacting to the news. “The most important thing is that Obama took the initiative, this will go down really well with our leadership.”
It was the first telephone conversation between the top leaders of Iran and United States since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
In Iran, many had been disappointed when Rouhani failed to show up at a UN luncheon Tuesday, where he had been expected to meet with Obama for a handshake. But the Friday phone signoff to Rouhani as he was heading to the airport to fly back home to Iran, after four days of frenetic diplomacy in the United States, was almost just as good as a handshake.
“This voice contact has for now replaced the actual shaking of hands, but this is clearly the start of a process that could in the future lead to a face-to-face meeting between both leaders,” said Amir Mohebbian, a political adviser close to Iran’s highest leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“After the positive meeting between the foreign ministers of Iran and the United States on Thursday we could see this coming,” Mohebbian said in an interview. “This was a polite farewell, a thank-you, for all the positivity from Iran.” If talks on the nuclear dispute next month go well, he said, “we could witness a meeting after that.”
Another analyst, close to Rouhani, praised the phone call by Obama as “the best thing he could have done.” The analyst, Nader Karimi Joni, who works as a journalist and was jailed in the past for opposing the interests of hard-liners, said the call was a “verbal farewell for a VIP guest, similar to seeing Mr. Rouhani off personally.”
The official Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, a 24-hour television channel, showed news of the meeting between Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday, but as of midnight had not mentioned the phone conversation between the presidents.
The government’s Islamic Republic News Agency, however, prominently displayed the news on its website. “While president Rouhani was leaving New York for Tehran, President Obama called him and both sides emphasized a quick solution for the nuclear problem. They also considered the background for finding solutions for other issues and cooperation in regional issues. Both presidents asked their foreign ministers to pave the way for cooperation.”
Some Iranians said the immediate practical impact of the phone call could be a surge in the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, which has weakened to historic lows against the dollar in recent months because of the accumulated economic sanctions on Iran, imposed by the United States and European Union in response to the nuclear standoff.
“To be sure, the dollar will drop tomorrow against the rial,” Kay said.
Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations and his outreach to the US government have not been greeted with universal approval or even acceptance in Iran, where suspicion toward Washington’s motives can always be found. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, harbors a deep hostility toward America.
During weekly Friday prayers in Tehran, one of the most important political platforms in the country, Ayatollah Mahmoud Emami Kashani repeated Obama’s words saying he didn’t want to change the Iranian regime. “Everybody knows it is impossible to topple the Islamic system. These are only rants,” said the Ayatollah, who is appointed by Iran’s supreme leader. Before the prayers the official chanter referred to the “double standards of Obama,” which drew a more familiar refrain from the crowd: “Death to America!”
The seemingly breathless momentum of the diplomacy after more than three decades of hostility and suspicion was clearly taking some Iranians by surprise.
“Things are going really, really fast, faster than expected,” said Mostafa Afzalzadeh, a journalist working for several conservative outlets. “It is shocking, I am really curious what people will say tomorrow.”
Others have been more philosophical, even a bit irreverent, about the possibility of reconciliation. Some Iranians have been cracking jokes about a potential conversation between both presidents, saying it would be between Hasan and Hussain, a reference to the Iranian president’s given name and the American president’s middle name. Both are revered saints in the Shiite faith