The phone call that broke the ice

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IT seemed too good to be true.

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On Friday US President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani spoke on the phone, and, according to Mr. Obama, “discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.”

They chatted for only 15 minutes, but that phone call broke through 34 years of glacial intransigence that had separated the two countries.

The US and Iran have not been on each other’s dance card since 1979, when the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah, whose regime Washington had long propped up.

A wave of anti-American fervor swept Iran, whipped up by the new and popular ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, who never forgave the US for harboring the Shah. US President Jimmy Carter further stoked the fire by remarking, rather indelicately, that the Shah was well loved by his people.

The fraying ties between the two countries snapped on November 4, 1979, when a mob of students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans as hostages.

Washington was naturally outraged, and demanded the hostages’ release. Negotiations were long and fruitless, and for the Carter Administration, the hostage crisis became a lesion that refused to heal.

The US despair at having Americans blindfolded, bound and held captive in a hostile country deepened after a daring rescue mission failed horribly, resulting in the death of eight US soldiers.

The 52 Americans remained captives for 444 days. They were freed in January 1980, not long after Ronald Reagan took his oath of office as Mr. Carter’s successor.

Iran, meanwhile, had grown in stature and power, having been venerated by its neighbors as the country that stood up against the “Great Satan.”

It reached out to radical Islamic groups who are sworn enemies of Israel, to the chagrin of Washington, Jerusalem’s steadfast ally.

But what American presidents after Mr. Reagan found most worrisome was the emergence of Iran as a nuclear power. Ironically, it was the US helped Iran on the road to nuclear development when it developed the Atoms for Peace program during the time of the Shah.

Ayatollah Khomeini had frowned at any attempt to harness nuclear power, saying it goes against Muslim tenets. But the leaders who succeeded him did not have such qualms; they saw uranium enrichment and reprocessing efforts as a potent tool to wield in the world stage.

American intelligence officials have long been convinced that Iran was gaining headway in producing nuclear weapons, and Washington has led the clamor for Iran to open its facilities to United Nations inspection.

Tehran has been insisting that its uranium enrichment program is geared towards peaceful purposes, but refuses to allow inspectors access to its facilities.

The standoff held, until Mr. Rouhani came to power in May. Unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Rouhani was less strident and more accommodating, someone who was willing to share his thoughts with the leader of the “Great Satan.”

True enough, in less than a week, Mr. Rouhani has made a great leap in mending fences with a political adversary.

A lot, however, still needs to be done to clear suspicions and restore trust. But a phone call could be the icebreaker.

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