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The Rouhani Tsunami: A Presidential Phone Call Offers Another Iranian Surprise

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) are seated during a meeting of the foreign ministers

Capping a week full of headlines, controversy, spectacle and schmoozing, Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani made history on Friday by concluding his inaugural visit to the United States with an unprecedented telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama. In a perfect diplomatic minuet, the call was invited by Iranian officials and initiated by the White House. The conversation ended nearly 35 years of silence between the two leaderships and inspired hopes, as expressed by President Obama, that "we can reach a comprehensive solution" to the Iranian nuclear crisis and potentially even more — the start of a new relationship between America and Iran.

The phone call followed another historic first, a meeting between Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The news sparked giddiness among many Iranians on social media, where an account linked to Rouhani announced the call and recounted the details only moments before Obama spoke before a hastily-organized press conference in Washington, D.C. to do the same. However, upon his arrival at Tehran's Mehrbad airport, Iran's president was greeted with a more dissonant tone, as his effusive supporters were joined by a small group of hardliners hurling shoes and eggs in protest. It was a small but stark reminder of the obstacles the Iranian regime will have to navigate if it is to amend even slightly one of the defining elements of its raison d’être, antagonism toward America.

Still, it would be difficult to overstate how momentous a mere phone call is for both countries and for the international community, or how unexpected. The last direct conversation between the American and Iranian leaderships took place before the culmination of the 1979 revolution, as Mohammad Reza Shah prepared to leave his country and his throne for good. Months later, a meeting between leaders from Iran's first post-revolutionary government and then-U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski helped spark the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the ensuing hostage crisis and the formal rupture of bilateral relations that remains in place to this day.

The phone call represents the tip of an iceberg; it would not have been undertaken by this risk-averse White House without some concrete justification that Tehran's signaling could convey something more substantial. The contours of whatever lies beneath the charm offensive should become clear over the upcoming weeks and months, as the two sides engage in an accelerated effort to hammer out a nuclear accord.

It may take longer to ascertain the scope and scale of this development for Iran's domestic politics and its future evolution. After all, the forces that have generated this historic moment are still barely understood. Although President Obama campaigned on the notion of engaging with American adversaries, and even suggested in a 2007 debate that he would be willing to meet with Rouhani's predecessor, the notorious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian challenge proved more daunting and complex than he could have imagined. His early overtures were rebuffed, and Iran erupted into domestic upheaval and repression after Ahmadinejad's contested 2009 reelection. The dramatic intensification of sanctions exacerbated the hardening of Iranian politics, and until sometime in early June, it seemed impossible to conceive of an Iranian leadership willing or capable of direct dialogue with the government still vilified every Friday — including this one — as the 'Great Satan.'

But as we watched, and wondered, Tehran appears to have engaged in a slow-motion process of recalibration, away from its collision course with the world and toward an end-point that remains profoundly uncertain. This shift has been long in the making, and probably can be traced to the events of 2009. Iran's epic turmoil was quickly subdued but left deep rifts in the establishment, many of whom were among the imprisoned. The following year, what had been a mostly American effort to penalize Tehran for its nuclear ambitions and support for terror went global, via a relentless series of economic restrictions that have halved the country's oil exports and blocked trade and access to any profits. Then in 2011, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader and its absolute authority on all policies, publicly repudiated his seemingly hand-picked president, a move that unleashed the barely-concealed hostilities among the regime's remaining defenders.

The revolutionary enterprise seemed to have few remaining options — collapse, capitulation, or contraction into a praetorian shell. But the Islamic Republic has repeatedly demonstrated a surprising capacity for reinvention, and somewhere along this slide into pariah status, it appears the theocracy's old guard may have grabbed the wheel just short of the cliff. Iran's fractious politics offer enough evidence of intra-elite dissension to substantiate almost any theory of the case, but Rouhani's ascension suggests that the regime's pragmatic center managed to persuade Khamenei to reproduce his predecessor's epic compromise in order to salvage the revolution. Just as Iran's first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, accepted the 'poison chalice' of a cease-fire with Saddam, Khamenei appears to have countenanced a retreat from the regime's refusal to engage with Washington.

Iran's internal reset went public at least with Rouhani's campaign — this rollicking, boundary-bashing bid for the presidency that brought scores of Iranians back to the public sphere to demand their place in shaping their country's future. They came out in throngs, and chanted the kinds of slogans that might have gotten them arrested only weeks before. They reveled in the streets after his victory was confirmed, and again days later when Iran qualified for the World Cup. They understood well before the world could appreciate that the tectonic plates of Iran's fragile political ecosphere were shifting, and that this election could revive their hopes and opportunities.

Three months ago, as the election results trickled in, it seemed clear that Iran was in the throes of a pivotal change. I wrote that evening, hours before Rouhani's victory had been certified, that a fixer had been found — someone to end Iran's debilitating standoff with the world, much as former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had been empowered to end the war with Iraq. For an in-depth, multi-media examination of the history and the possibilities evoked by Rouhani's election, I'd encourage readers to check out The Brookings Essay entitled "Iran Surprises Itself And The World" released several weeks ago.

Since the election itself, the evidence emerging from Iran has reinforced the early confidence that Rouhani had been tasked with an explicit mandate to obtain an agreement that would unravel the noose of international sanctions and rehabilitate Iran's place in the world. The assembling of a cabinet of experienced technocrats, the transfer of the nuclear file to a foreign minister who boasts unparalleled contacts with Washington, the build-up of an unusual outreach to the world — all these were signals that the Rouhani era was intended to facilitate some kind of truce in Iran's decade-long battle to defend its nuclear program.

Skepticism is rife at this early stage, and it is justified. Iran has experienced epic changes in the past, and none have facilitated a better relationship with Washington. Khamenei and the hard-liners remain mired in suspicion toward Washington and malevolence toward the values of pluralism and tolerance that are central to American interests. And the issues at stake in the nuclear negotiations engage a set of closely-held security requirements that are mutually incompatible — not to mention the mountains of ideological and strategic issues at stake in advancing any dialogue that endeavors beyond the nuclear issue. Both sides want to give as little as possible, and get more than their due in return. Both sides have intense domestic politics, with constituencies committed to mutual demonization and players seeking to subvert the power of the presidency.

It is just a phone call — it is not an agreement, it's nowhere near rapprochement. But 'just a phone call' has eluded both governments for more than three decades. Throughout his visit to New York, Rouhani repeated a mantra — "everything is possible" — that seems bland but, in the context of the bilateral history, suggested something remarkable. Whether he can deliver remains to be tested, but for today, far more is possible with Iran than anyone could have imagined only a few weeks ago.