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Obama-Rouhani phone call gets divided reception

President Barack Obama's telephone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani marks the first time the nations' leaders have communicated directly since 1979. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

Politicians and analysts were sharply divided over the importance of President Barack Obama's telephone call Friday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Iran scholars broadly praised the first direct talks between the U.S. and Iranian leaders in 34 years. Iran itself sounded notes of caution. And Republicans scoffed.

Obama dramatically revealed the 15-minute discussion at the top of a televised statement mostly devoted to challenging House Republicans to reach an accommodation on spending that would avoid a government shutdown next week.


House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wasn't alone among those in his party who accused Obama of preferring to talk to Iranian dictators over talking to them:

Likewise the chief spokesman for Boehner's deputy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia:

"Iran's government remains — in spite of President Rouhani's rhetoric — a brutal, repressive theocracy," Cantor said later in a statement. "... The President suggests there is 'new leadership' in Iran, yet Supreme Leader Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei remains the true ruler in Tehran, and we are only fooling ourselves when we suggest otherwise."

Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, saw the discussion not as a breakthrough but as a capitulation.

"Our damaging sanctions have gotten Rouhani on the phone," Royce said in a statement. "We must increase the economic pressure until Iran stops its nuclear drive."

Professional scholars and analysts sharply disagreed, describing the call as "historic" and "breathtaking."

The telephone conversation between the U.S. and Iran could change their relationship. NBC's Ann Curry examines what it could mean

"This is part of a pattern that has led to a real breakthrough," said Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at the Columbia University  School of International & Public Affairs.

"And basically what's happening is that the ice that has covered the U.S.-Iran relationship for over the last 30 years is starting to break. And when ice starts to break up, it goes faster than you think," Sick told The Associated Press.

Yasmin Alem, a senior fellow with the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan public policy center in Washington, said the call was "an important milestone — a calculated risk bytwo cautious leaders mindful of domestic constraints.

"More than anything else, it shows the high level of political capital invested in a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis," Alem told Reuters.

Key to the initiative is support — or lack of it — from Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be in Washington and New York next week to make his case against Iran's nuclear program. The Israeli Foreign Ministry had no comment on the news Friday.


A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel "has every right to be skeptical of the Iranian government given statements out of Iran in the past."

The discussions drew mainly neutral coverage in Iran itself — a possible signal that hard-line supporters of Khamenei are willing to give Rouhani some breathing room.

Semi-official government websites reported that Obama and Rouhani had spoken, adding no criticism or congratulations of Rouhani.

In an interview with The New York Times, Amir Mohebbian, a political adviser close to Khamenei, said "we could see this coming" after the meeting Thursday between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Mohebbian stopped short of reading great significance into the call, describing it as "a polite farewell, a thank you for all the positivity from Iran."

Ali Arouzi and Stacey Klein of NBC News contributed to this report.

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