15-Minute Phone Call Cause for Hope in U.S.-Iran Relations

For nearly 34 years, the United States and Iran have declared each other sworn enemies. Last week’s phone call between the two countries’ presidents — the first in almost 30 years — represents a remarkable opportunity to end this hostility. The lines of communication need to stay open.

The hostility between the nations runs deep. The deceased spiritual Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had for decades chided the Americans for orchestrating a coup that in 1953 saw the overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and for helping the Shah of Iran’s ruthless police force quash public dissent throughout the Cold War. Moving from decades of exile to the helm of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Khomeini famously called the United States the “Great Satan” for these exploits.

When the U.S.-backed Shah was overthrown and the Islamic Republic of Iran established in 1979, the two longtime allies became instant ideological foes. The ill-fated hostage-taking of U.S. Embassy staff in Tehran by Iranian university students sympathetic to the new Islamic republic took more than a year to resolve and further damaged relations between the nations.

In the late 1990s, there was a glimmer of hope that decades of mutual animosity might be near an end. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami extended an olive branch, but the effort to promote dialogue and diplomatic exchanges made little progress. U.S. President George W. Bush labelled Iran a member of the “axis of evil” and then hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, shutting the door on bilateral progress.

With rhetoric of hate, Ahmadinejad thrived on antagonizing the United States in word and deed, and for its part the United States ratcheted up the rhetoric of vilifying Iranian intentions and dehumanizing a great civilization. Without a shot ever being fired between the two, a global superpower and a pivotal regional power have been in a war of words for decades.

When President Barack Obama called newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Friday, it was the first time in decades — since the days of Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Reza Shah — that the presidents from both countries spoke. Indeed, the 15-minute phone call is historic, but the hard work of addressing long-standing and decisive issues has yet to begin and will be challenged by enormous distrust on both sides.

Today, Iran’s nuclear program remains the key issue driving a wedge between the two countries. According to the Iranian government, the program’s development is for energy purposes and the country has a sovereign right to diversify its energy needs and establish itself as a modern and scientifically advanced nation.

According to the United States, the nuclear enrichment program is a few steps away from becoming a weapons program that could destabilize the region and harm pro-U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. This gap could be verified under the investigative auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but deep mistrust remains on both sides about the true intentions of the other with fear that their enemy has annihilationist objectives.

Both the U.S. and Iran have accused each other of destabilizing the Middle East. Iranian critics of the U.S. point to American support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in the 2000s under false pretenses, and the country’s unapologetic support for Israel despite an occupation of Palestinian land.

The Americans, meanwhile, point to perceived Iranian hostility toward the state of Israel, the support of radical groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and the use of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard thugs to support Syria’s Assad regime and allegedly carry out global terrorist activity.

The hawks, who will remind each of their respective leaders of these unresolved issues, are abundant on both sides of the globe — from the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington to the corridors of the seminaries in Qom. Both Obama and Rouhani have already faced domestic criticism for their so-called naiveté and idealism.

Yet, this moment where two doves are in power is a historic opportunity that must not be missed. It took 34 years to create an opening to communicate. While the phone call ended with Rouhani saying “goodbye” and Obama saying “Khoda Hafez,” it is hoped that this is the beginning of a long overdue thaw in bilateral relations.