Conflict & Justice

The phone call that shook the world – a little


President Barack Obama speaks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on the phone in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013.


Pete Souza/White House

As conversations go, it was hardly the stuff of legend.

“Have a good day, Mr. President,” said President Hassan Rouhani of Iran.

“Khoda hafez,” replied President Barack Obama of the United States, using a signoff common in the Muslim world.

But, after a 34-year silence, even the pro forma courtesies and empty platitudes of the 15-minute call — placed by Obama at Rouhani’s request, according to Washington aides — were signs of a definite crack in the edifice of anger and suspicion going back six decades.

A troubled history

Trying to understand the origins of the split is a bit like wading into a schoolyard brawl, with each side claiming it was the other bully who started it.

“You’re nothing but a Great Satan!” screams one scrappy fighter.

“Axis of Evil yourself!” replies the other, sticking out his tongue for good measure.

Further discussion under such circumstances is not usually productive.

For most Americans, the bleak history of enmity with Iran begins in 1979, with a revolution and a hostage crisis that lasted 444 days and just about sank the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

In the popular imagination, Iran is a country of wild-eyed clerics fomenting about American immorality and decadence, a country that sponsors terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, wants to wipe Israel off the map and is probably building a nuclear bomb for just that purpose.

Iran was deemed to be responsible for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Tower in Saudi Arabia that killed 17 American military personnel and injured hundreds.

It provides weapons to Afghan insurgents that are used against American soldiers, and is backing the murderous regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

How can anyone try and make friends with people like that?

For Iran, the opening act came a bit earlier — in 1953, when the CIA helped organize a coup that brought down the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and backed the brutally repressive regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

Since then, Tehran has seen the hand of Washington behind just about everything that happens.

And an awful lot has happened.

The United States actively supported Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s, including the use of chemical weapons that killed up to 5,000 people

Washington also attacked Iranian oil installations in the Persian Gulf in 1987 and shot down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, apparently by accident.

It has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, and repeatedly talks about “carrots and sticks,” which, Mohammad El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, pointed out years ago, will not work.

“You cannot treat Iran like a donkey, with carrots and sticks,” he told Newsweek.

When Tehran did try and ease tensions, in 2003, by voluntarily suspending its uranium enrichment program, Washington declined to respond in kind, leaving sanctions in place and lumping Iran together with North Korea and Iraq in its “Axis of Evil.”

Tehran suspects that Washington is still trying to topple the government, just like in 1953, and wants explicit assurances that “regime change” is off the table.

It is going to be a long, long road back to normal relations.

All politics is local

But the phone conversation that set the world aTwitter — literally — is a good first step.

The major problem for both sides is that neither wants to be played for a fool.

According to Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard, “The United States and Iran are facing a classic problem in international relations (and other forms of bargaining): Given that an adversary could be bluffing or dissembling, how do you know when a seemingly friendly gesture is sincere?” 

But Walt thinks it’s time to suspend disbelief, basing his assessment on a theory of “costly signals.”

More: Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns makes sense of Iran's breakthrough

“Unlike ‘cheap talk,’ a costly signal is an action that involves some cost or risk for the sender and therefore is one that the sender would be unlikely to make if they didn't really mean it,” writes Walt.

Both Rouhani and Obama are facing opposition to their détente at home, and improving relations may not go smoothly in either capital.

Speculation that the two presidents might meet at the General Assembly was derailed by reports that Rouhani’s aides thought that even a possible handshake was “too complicated.”

One Iranian newspaper, Kayhan, expressed horror that “the clean hand of our president would for moments be in the bloody clench” (of Obama).

Indeed, when Rouhani returned to Tehran following his charm offensive at the UN General Assembly, he was pelted with eggs and shoes by a small but determined bunch of protesters who do not want to see Iran making friends with Washington.

Obama is facing only verbal eggs and shoes so far. As he battled Congress over health care and a possible government shutdown, opponents have criticized him for being more willing to talk to Iran than to his own opposition. 

Israel is also putting up a stiff resistance to Washington’s rapprochement with Tehran. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly called Rouhani’s overtures “a fraud.” According to the Israeli media, he has ordered his aides not to comment on the Obama-Rouhani phone call, and will address the UN General Assembly himself next Tuesday.

The Israeli prime minister entertained the United Nations last year with a crude depiction of Iran’s nuclear program shaped like a bomb, with a thick red line near the detonator.

Iran insists that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, and that its uranium enrichment is purely for peaceful purposes. 

Tehran remains a party the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and US intelligence agencies have repeatedly reported that they have no evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb.

But that is not going to silence the critics.

”A lot depends on how well you think Obama and Rouhani can control the domestic politics in their respective countries and explain to the relevant stakeholders why a deal would be better for nearly everyone,” says Professor Walt.

Well, good luck with that.

The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz wrote a satirical blog this week insisting that Republican lawmakers were warning Rouhani not to shake hands with Obama.

“This is a man who has enslaved his people, saddling them with a health-care law not of their choosing,” said Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). “The President of Iran should think twice before shaking hands with a man like that.”

So it could be hard going.

Says Harvard’s Walt: “My guess is that Rouhani will have an easier time than Obama will.”