Iranian President Hassan Rouhani takes his chair before a news conference at the Millennium Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in New York.
(Photo: John Minchillo, AP)
President Obama said Friday that he spoke with new Iran President Hasan Rouhani by phone, the first top-level U.S.-Iranian contact in more than three decades.
Obama said he and Rouhani discussed the standoff over Iran's nuclear program and directed their teams to negotiate a possible agreement in which Iran would forswear the ability to develop nuclear weapons.
"While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward, and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution," Obama said.
The United States has said it will not allow Iran to develop the means to make nuclear weapons; Iran said its nuclear program is designed for peaceful energy programs.
Rouhani confirmed the phone conversations in a series of Twitter messages, saying in one that "in regards to nuclear issue, with political will, there is a way to rapidly solve the matter."
In another tweet, Rouhani told Obama: "I express my gratitude for your hospitality and your phone call. Have a good day Mr President."
Also in his address Friday, Obama again said that Republicans will be responsible if the government shuts down or defaults on its debts in the weeks ahead.
A senior administration official familiar with the Iran call said it took place at about 2:30 p.m.and lasted some 15 minutes.
Obama congratulated Rouhani on his recent election and talked about the history of mistrust between the two nations, the official said.
Earlier this week, Obama and aides made clear he would be willing to meet with Rouhani as both leaders attended the United Nations General Assembly. That meeting never came off.
On Friday, Obama aides heard from Iranian sources that Rouhani would speak with the president by phone, partly because of a positive discussion the day before between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, the official said.Various members of Congress and Israel were notified about the call.
Iran will be a major topic Monday when Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has raised questions about Iran's sincerity.
The official said that Obama understands Israel's skepticism about Iran, especially given its inflammatory statements over the years about its existence.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to pre-empt Obama's comments.
The United States broke relations with Iran after Iranian revolutionaries took control of the country and seized American embassy hostages in 1979.
In discussing the U.S. political standoffs over the budget and debt ceiling, Obama said he wanted to give a message to congressional Republicans: "I'd encourage you to think about who you're hurting."
Obama spoke hours after the Democratic-run Senate passed a temporary spending plan that includes the president's new health care plan -- a provision members of the Republican-run House say they will not accept.
If the parties cannot agree on a spending plan by the start of the fiscal year on Tuesday, many parts of the government will shut down.
During his remarks in the White House press room, Obama said a shutdown would affect military pay and loans for farmers, home buyers and small business people. The president said "the federal government has a large role across the country and touches the lives of millions of people."
The health care dispute could also affect efforts to increase the debt ceiling, which gives the government authority to borrow money to repay its debts. Some Republicans say they will oppose raising the debt ceiling unless health care is defunded.
For his part, Obama said the health care plan will move forward, and he will not negotiate on the need to raise the debt limit.
"Nobody gets to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States just to extract political concessions," Obama said.
Obama also said "failure to meet this responsibility would be far more dangerous than a government shutdown."
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said: "The House will take action that reflects the fundamental fact that Americans don't want a government shutdown and they don't want the train wreck that is Obamacare."
He added: "Grandstanding from the president, who refuses to even be a part of the process, won't bring Congress any closer to a resolution."
In addition to the budget and Iran, Obama echoed comments he made earlier in the day, hailing a proposed agreement in which Syria would turn over its chemical weapons.
"We'll have to be vigilant about following through, but this could be a significant victory for the international community," Obama said.
During his Iran remarks, Obama noted he was the first U.S. president to speak with an Iranian counterpart since 1979.
That fact "underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history," Obama said.
While mindful of the challenges ahead, Obama noted that "Iran's Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons," and "President Rouhani has indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons."