Iranians cheer, protest over Rouhani's historic phone call with Obama

Reuters

* Hundreds hail moderate president's return from UN GeneralAssembly

* Smaller group throw eggs, stones at Rouhani's car leavingairport

* Rouhani, Obama pledge to speed up work to end nuclearstandoff

* Iranian rial currency rises after Obama-Rouhani phone call

* Top MP lauds contact as sign of Iran's "position ofauthority"

By Marcus George

DUBAI, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Iranians cheeredPresident Hassan Rouhani on his return from New York on Saturdayafter his historic phone call with U.S. President Barack Obamabut a smaller number of hardliners shouted "Death to America"and threw eggs and shoes at his official car leaving theairport, Iranian media reported.

While an anticipated handshake between Rouhani and Obama atUnited Nations headquarters failed to materialise, they held a15-minute call on Friday at the end of the moderate new Iranianpresident's trip for the U.N. General Assembly.

Iranian media said hundreds of Rouhani supporters keen tosee him make good on pledges of "constructive interaction" withthe world to ease Iran's international isolation and win relieffrom punitive sanctions turned up to hail his U.N. visit.

They greeted the president with chants of "Rouhani we thankyou" and "Iran calls for moderation" and held aloft portraits ofhim, the student news agency ISNA said.

But about 100 conservative hardliners also appeared,shouting "Death to America", a standard refrain at radicalrallies in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and "nocompromise or surrender to our national interests".

Witness reports posted on Twitter said protesters peltedRouhani's limousine with eggs and stones in anger over hisdirect contact with Obama, the first between Iranian and U.S.presidents for 34 years.

The semi-official Mehr news agency ran pictures of someprotesters banging the sides of Rouhani's car as it began todepart the airport. Mehr said one protester threw his shoes atthe vehicle, a gesture of deep insult in the Islamic faith.

U.S. officials said the phone call - which focused on how toresolve the standoff over Iran's disputed nuclear programme -was requested by the Iranian side but in comments to journalistsafter his return, Rouhani indicated it was an U.S. initiative.

Rouhani won election in a landslide last June, buoyed bymany voters keen for steps towards moderation and reform aftereight years of intensifying repression at home and isolationabroad under confrontational predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The contacts Rouhani and his foreign minister had with U.S.officials during the U.N. General Assembly were unlikely to havehappened without the approval of Iran's ultimate authority,Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But the polarised reactions on Rouhani's return hinted atthe challenge he faces in winning over anti-Western hardliners,especially in the powerful clerical and security establishments,to his conciliatory approach.

WORDS OF PRAISE ON FACEBOOK

Iranians at home and abroad posted hundreds of messages onForeign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's Facebook page. "You havemade the people of Iran happy, especially the (Rouhani) phonecall with Obama," read one. "We are proud of you" read another."Don't be tired. We are hopeful that one day there will bedirect flights from Tehran to Washington", said a third.

There has been little reaction so far from Iran's politicalleadership but one influential parliamentarian was upbeat.

"This (phone call) shows that Iran's place in the world isof critical importance. That the president of America insists ona telephone call is a sign of sincerity," Mehr quoted the headof parliament's committee for national security and foreignaffairs, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, as saying on Saturday.

The reformist-leaning newspaper Etemaad ran the headline:"Historic contact on the return flight", with a mocked-uppicture of Obama and Rouhani sitting beside each other.

Conservative media chose to stick to coverage of Thursday'snuclear talks between envoys of Iran and six world powers and aseparate, rare meeting between Zarif and U.S. Secretary of StateJohn Kerry.

The United States and its allies have accused the IslamicRepublic of seeking covertly to develop a nuclear weaponscapability. Tehran says it is enriching uranium only forcivilian energy purposes but restricts U.N. inspections.

After years of increasing fears of a new Middle East warover the nuclear dispute, word of the Rouhani-Obama phone callappeared to raise hopes of detente and led to a 2 percent risein Iran's rial against the dollar on the open market on Sunday.

Obama said on Friday he and Rouhani had directed their teamsto work quickly toward a settlement on Iran's nuclear activity.

Rouhani said the two men "expressed their mutual politicalwill to rapidly solve the nuclear issue". On Tuesday, he toldthe U.N. General Assembly that Iran would never develop nuclearweapons and he later called for a nuclear deal in three to sixmonths.

The phone contact signalled a striking shift in tone betweenIran and Washington, which cut diplomatic relations a year afterthe revolution ousted U.S.-allied Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi andled to the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis.

Obama has said for years he is open to direct contact withIran while also stressing that all options - including militarystrikes - were on the table to prevent Iran building atom bombs.

Before leaving the airport Rouhani told journalists thatcontrary to reports in Western media, he had not refused ameeting with Obama earlier in the week but there wasinsufficient time to coordinate it.

"To have a meeting between the presidents of these twocountries there are many necessary steps. If this meeting hadbeen compressed into the programme, it would have beenpremature," the official news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.

An Obama administration official said Washington hadbriefied Israel about the Obama-Rouhani call. Israel, Tehran'sarch-enemy, is deeply mistrustful of the change in Iran'srhetoric and has warned its allies to be wary of Rouhani.

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