TEHRAN — As word of Barack Obama and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani’s, historic phone call spread here on Saturday morning, Iranians had a range of reactions to the surprising news, underscoring the delicacy of rekindling diplomatic ties after 34 years of estrangement between the two countries.
Most people were surprised and happy that both Obama and Rouhani expressed hope that the long troubled relationship between their countries could be resolved quickly, but that sentiment is far from universal.
The announcement, made via Rouhani’s Twitter account and quickly verified by Iranian state media, capped a month of surprising diplomatic moments between the U.S. and Iran that only weeks earlier seemed unfathomable.
“Hassan went to New York to bring back a message from Hussein,” joked Ali Zamani, a 52-year-old bank manager, referring to the first name of the Iranian president, and Obama’s middle name. Hassan and Hussein are among the central figures of Shiite Islam, brothers who are revered as saints.
Local newspapers picked up on the news quickly with evocative headlines, such as the reformist daily Shargh’s which read, “Obama¹s last minute call to Rouhani.” The article hailed the presidents’ agreement to, “prepare the grounds for cooperation as soon as possible.”
Most dailies also published large photographs of U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, and Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, together, smiling taken at the meeting between the P5+1 and Iran held on Thursday to discuss ways to resolve international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran contends its nuclear ambitions are solely peaceful while world powers are concerned that it plans to develop a weapons capability.
While many Iranians were visibly excited Saturday at the prospects of renewed relations with their country’s long time foe, other segments of the population will take more convincing.
“Yesterday we said death to America, now we’re supposed to say hello to America? That’s not easy,” said said Ali Jaffarian, a 47-year-old taxi driver and veteran of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, who was reading one of the morning newspapers on Taleghani Street in central Tehran, site of the former U.S. embassy.
There was no immediate sign of the massive change that took place overnight on this street, which is one of the enduring remnants of the break in relations between the two nations.
“Business has been very slow for a long time, so I was very excited when I heard this morning that Obama and Rouhani spoke,” said Reza Habibi, who works at the Khorshid Khanoom handicraft shop, which is directly across the street from the former embassy¹s front gate.
The shop, which has operated in this location for over 50 years, was originally opened to tend to embassy employees and their foreign guests, according to Habibi, who said, “I pray to God that the embassy opens again. That would be the best sign that things are getting better.”
The embassy grounds, which were stormed in 1979 by revolutionary students who took 52 American citizens hostage and held them for 444 days, is now under the control of organizations linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The site is closed to the public, except on special occasions when people can visit the an exhibition inside what is referred to locally as the “Den of Espionage.”
A guard at the compound’s front gate had heard about Rouhani and Obama’s phone call, but said it would have little impact.
“Nothing is clear yet,” he said, declining to give his name. “If it¹s going to be like it was during the Shah’s time when America tried to tell us what to do, then I don’t think there will be any change in relations.”
“Until the Zionists no longer have control over the American government there won’t be real diplomacy. But my opinion is that I agree with whatever our supreme leader decides,” said Abbas Emami, an employee at a bookstore on the southeast corner of the embassy compound, called the ‘57 Cultural House. 1357 on the Iranian calendar corresponds with 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution.
While revolutionary sentiment is still palpable here, for many Iranians like this street, it is becoming a relic of their country’s past and news of the telephone call between Rouhani and Obama was a welcomed reason for optimism as Iran’s economy bears the burden of heavy sanctions over its nuclear program.
“There are still lots of hardline people who are ready to die for the cause, but now most of us just want a better life,” said Jaffarian, the taxi driver.
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