Obama has historic call with Iran leader, warns GOP about shutdown

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

President Barack Obama announced Friday that he had spoken by telephone with Iran's president Hasan Rouhani — the first direct conversation between leaders of both countries since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

In hastily arranged remarks in the White House briefing room to announce the breakthrough, Obama also sharply scolded congressional Republicans demanding that he agree to roll back Obamacare in return for avoiding a government shutdown or raising America’s debt limit.

“That’s not going to happen,” the president declared. “Do not threaten to burn the house down simply because you haven’t gotten one hundred percent of your way.”

That drew a shot from Republican House Speaker John Boehner's office. “Grandstanding from the president, who refuses to even be a part of the process, won’t bring Congress any closer to a resolution,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.

And Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s communications director, Rory Cooper, charged on Twitter that “The President won't talk to people with bombs strapped to their chest...only the Iranian president, who literally funds that.”

But Obama scoffed at the idea that raising the debt ceiling is something that he wants, and for which he should make concessions to Republicans.
“Voting for the Treasury to pay America’s bills is not a concession to me. That’s not doing me a favor,” Obama said. “That’s simply carrying out the solemn responsibilities that come with holding office up there.”

The surprise diplomatic overture came after Obama and Rouhani had traded letters following Rouhani's  election earlier this year. The White House had proposed an informal meeting between the two leaders this week in New York around the United Nations General Assembly, which both men attended. But officials said the Iranians had concluded that the timing was wrong.

Lawmakers of both parties have warned Obama against too quickly embracing Rouhani and easing up on crippling economic sanctions tied to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

In the White House briefing room, Obama noted "important obstacles to moving forward" and cited "deep mistrust" between the United States and Iran.

But "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," the president said.

The U.S. and its partners insist that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. Tehran says its intentions are to build a peaceful civilian energy program. Successive American presidents have tightened economic sanctions on Iran and threatened the use of force if Tehran seems likely to develop a nuclear weapon.

"Now, we're mindful of all the challenges ahead," Obama underlined. "The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history."

“A path to a meaningful agreement will be difficult,” Obama underlined. “The test will be meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place.”

The call does not raise the prospect for direct U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations. Obama said he would pursue the talks through the so-called "P5+1" — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany.

A senior administration official, briefing reporters on condition that he not be named, said the conversation occurred at 2:30 p.m. in Washington and lasted 15 minutes. Rouhani was in New York for the annual U.N. meeting.

Rouhani, who broke word of the conversation on his English-language Twitter feed moments before Obama spoke, provided more details.

(Obama’s parting words are a common farewell that roughly translates to “May God be your guardian”)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has been starkly critical of Rouhani’s overtures to the West, was due at the White House on Monday.

“Throughout this process, we’ll stay in close touch with our friends and allies in the region, including Israel,” Obama promised.

Israel “has every right to be skeptical of the Iranian government” given “extraordinarily inflammatory” remarks and “threats” from Tehran, a senior administration official said.

The call came together at the last minute. Iranians let the White House know earlier Friday that Rouhani hoped to speak with Obama before returning to Iran later in the day, the offiical said.

Obama also hailed “a major diplomatic breakthrough on Syria” — a likely United Nations Security Council vote on a U.S.-Russian resolution “that would require the Assad regime to put its chemical weapons under international control so they can ultimately be destroyed.”

“This binding resolution will ensure that the Assad regime must keep its commitments, or face consequences,” the president said. “We’ll have to be vigilant about following through, but this could be a significant victory for the international community and demonstrate how strong diplomacy can allow us to secure our country and pursue a better world.”

Obama then pivoted to the ugly domestic standoff in Washington shortly after the Democratic-controlled Senate approved legislation to fund the government through Nov. 15. Senators stripped from the legislation a measure added by House Republicans to defund his landmark overhaul of U.S. health care.

The measure now heads to the House, where the Republican majority is divided on the path forward. Congress must approve a spending bill by Tuesday or face a government shutdown that experts warn would rattle the shaky economy.

Obama has repeatedly and categorically rejected Republican demands that he roll back Obamacare in return for averting a government shutdown. He also has ruled out negotiating with the GOP in order to secure their support for raising the debt ceiling — a step needed to pay for programs that Congress has already approved.

"Failure to meet this responsibility would be far more dangerous than a government shutdown — it would effectively be an economic shutdown," the president warned. Republican demands risk "blowing up the entire economy."

Failure to raise the debt ceiling would trigger a U.S. government default that could send shock waves through the global economy. The mere threat of one in 2011 led to the first-ever downgrade of America’s credit rating.