Phone call caps a week of seismic shifts in the relationship

The United States and Iran took a historic step toward ending more than three decades of estrangement on Friday when U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone and agreed to work on resolving global suspicions that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

The 15-minute call capped a week of seismic shifts in the relationship that revolved around Mr. Rouhani’s participation in the annual U.N. meeting of world leaders. The night before the two leaders spoke, U.S. and European diplomats hailed a “very significant shift” in Iran’s attitude and tone in the first talks on the nuclear standoff since April.

Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Obama spoke while the Iranian President was in his car and headed to the airport to fly back to Tehran, with Mr. Obama at his desk in the Oval Office. Mr. Rouhani’s aides initially reached out to arrange the conversation, and the White House placed the call. The last direct conversation between the leaders of the two countries was in 1979 before the Iranian Revolution toppled the pro-U.S. shah. Mr. Obama said the long break “underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.”

Earlier, at a news conference in New York, Mr. Rouhani linked the U.S. and Iran as “great nations,” a remarkable reversal from the anti-American rhetoric of his predecessors, and he expressed hope that at least the governments could stop the escalation of tensions.

“I want it to be the case that this trip will be a first step, and a beginning for better and constructive relations with countries of the world as well as a first step for a better relationship between the two great nations of Iran and the United States of America,” Mr. Rouhani said at the end of his four-day debut on the world stage to attend the annual U.N. General Assembly.

The White House said Mr. Obama told Mr. Rouhani he wanted to see the return of two Americans detained in Iran — former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini as well as retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007.

The news broke on Twitter a couple of minutes before Obama spoke, in an account that people close to Mr. Rouhani say is written by a former campaign aide who remains in close contact with the President’s inner circle. The two men talked through interpreters, but the tweet from @HassanRouhani said they ended by signing off in each other’s language. “In a phone conversation b/w #Iranian & #US Presidents just now- HassanRouhani- ‘Have a Nice Day!’ BarackObama- ‘Thank you. Khodahafez,’” the tweet said.

The White House had reached out to Tehran earlier this month to offer a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Monday or Tuesday, but Mr. Rouhani declined at the time.

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