TEHRAN – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani returned from his trip to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Saturday to a range of reactions at home, from supporters who hailed his diplomatic efforts to Basij militia members who hurled eggs and a shoe at him and his entourage after they landed.
The scene at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, just hours after the news of the historic telephone call between Rouhani and President Obama, underscored the delicacy of rekindling diplomatic ties after 34 years of estrangement between the two countries.
Many Iranians seemed surprised but pleased by the possibility that the long-troubled relationship could soon be mended.
“Hassan went to New York to bring back a message from Hussein,” Ali Zamani, a 52-year-old bank manager, said jokingly, referring to the first name of the Iranian president and Obama’s middle name. Hassan and Hussein are central figures in Shiite Islam, brothers who are revered as saints.
The Friday announcement, made via Rouhani’s Twitter account and verified by Iranian state media, capped a month of diplomatic moments between the United States and Iran that only weeks earlier seemed unfathomable. Representatives from both countries discussed their openness to begin direct talks in the days leading up to the General Assembly, but when Rouhani did not attend a luncheon for heads of state, many feared momentum would slow.
Newspapers picked up Friday’s news with evocative headlines. “Obama’s last-minute call to Rouhani,” the reformist daily Shargh declared over a story that hailed the presidents for agreeing to prepare “the grounds for cooperation as soon as possible.”
Most dailies published large photographs of Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on their front pages Saturday. The images of the two men smiling were taken at a meeting of top diplomats held to discuss ways to resolve international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
Hard-line officials here wasted no time in offering their interpretation of the events.
“The world’s respect for our president is a result of our nation’s resistance,” Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, told the Fars News Agency on Saturday.
“Obama and Rouhani’s telephone conversation shows Iran’s power. When the U.S. president wants to talk with our president, it demonstrates that Iran’s position in the world is important,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, told reporters in Tehran.
While many Iranians were visibly excited at the prospect of renewed relations with their country’s longtime foe, others were less convinced.
“Yesterday we said death to America, now we’re supposed to say hello to America? That’s not easy,” said Ali Jaffarian, a taxi driver and veteran of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, who was reading a morning newspaper on Taleghani Street, site of the former U.S. Embassy.
The embassy grounds, which were stormed in 1979 by revolutionary students who took 52 American citizens hostage and held them for 444 days, are under the control of organizations linked to the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But for many Iranians, revolutionary fervor is becoming a relic of their country’s past. Some said the Rouhani-Obama phone call has them hoping that international sanctions might be lifted soon.
“There are still lots of hard-line people who are ready to die for the cause,” said Jaffarian.
“But now, most of us just want a better life.”
Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Obama’s phone call could begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations. Iran must first follow through on its pledge to seek nuclear power only for peaceful purposes and stop supporting terrorists, she said, appearing on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” program.