Cameron and Rouhani met at the UN last September, but this was their first significant conversation since then and their first phone call. Downing Street said it was made on the initiative of the Iranian president and lasted half an hour early on Thursday afternoon.
“It was a substantive discussion and was pretty cordial,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said. It dwelt mostly on the multilateral nuclear talks under way in Lausanne in the runup to an end-of-March deadline for producing a framework understanding on what a final deal would look like. Diplomats would then have until the end of June to complete the fine print on the agreement.
The prime minister urged Rouhani “to seize the opportunity offered by the talks and not underestimate the concerns of the international community” in ensuring Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful, the spokeswoman said.
The conversation also covered the turmoil in Yemen and the bilateral relationship between the UK and Iran. Cameron insisted he remained keen to reopen an embassy in Tehran, but several outstanding technical issues had to be resolved first.
According to a version of the conversation on the state-run Iranian news agency IRNA, Rouhani urged all states at the talks to “take the unique chance of striking a deal” and “not let the chance slip away easily”. IRNA said the Iranian president had “highlighted the constructive role of the UK at the present juncture in carrying on with talks on equal basis”.
Rouhani also held phone conversations on Thursday with the leaders of France, Russia and China as the talks resumed in Lausanne after a five-day pause, under the leadership of the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Iranian foreign minister, Muhammad Javad Zarif.
The White House confirmed it had received a letter from Rouhani. The Iranian president tweeted that he had also sent letters to the leaders of the other states represented at the talks – the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – though it was unclear what the letters said.
“These are tough negotiations involving complex technical judgments and difficult political choices. We have made substantial progress in a number of areas but there are still important issues where no agreement has so far been possible,” a senior British diplomat said.
“Our task for the next few days is to see whether we can bridge the gaps and arrive at a political framework which could then be turned into an agreement, and that will be a process that could quite a long time because of the complexity of the subject matter.”
If diplomats get close to a deal, the foreign ministers from all the negotiating nations are due to fly out to join Kerry and Zarif in Lausanne, possibly this weekend.
Among the outstanding issues are the timing of the lifting of sanctions on Iran, the country’s right to carry out research and development on centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment, and the future use of an underground enrichment plant at Fordow.
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that a compromise was being considered concerning Fordow, which western powers insist cannot be used for uranium enrichment on any scale, in the face of Iranian objections. In the compromise described by AP Iran would be allowed to spin a few hundred centrifuges in Fordow, not to refine uranium but other elements, such as zinc, xenon or germanium, for medical and scientific purposes.
Even if there is agreement on the substance of the negotiations, there is lingering discord over how the agreement should be presented. The Iranians and Europeans would like it to disclose as little as possible in public, while Kerry – who has to present the results of the talks to Congress next week – wants a list of specific agreed issues to be made public.
“We will need to communicate as many specifics as possible to the public in some form or fashion. What that will look like we truly just do not know at this point yet,” said a senior US State Department official. “Obviously, we’ll be communicating that to Congress as well. But I think what folks are focused on right now is the substance of what we are trying to work towards in a political framework, and as we get closer here, I think conversations about the form for some sort of public announcement will be a part of the discussion, but we truly do not know at this point.”