Iranians Welcome President With Protest By Thomas Erdbrink
One protester was almost run over after he threw himself in front of Mr. Rouhani’s car.
TEHRAN – Dozens of protesters hurled eggs and at least one shoe at President Hassan Rouhani as he returned to Tehran on Saturday after a groundbreaking phone call with President Obama and other outreach to the West that has been greeted with widespread support in Iran.
The protest – coming even as supporters gathered to cheer the diplomatic outreach – quickly laid bare the political fissures in Iran over whether to engage with the United States and the challenges Mr. Rouhani and his aides face as they try to get international sanctions over the country’s nuclear program lifted.
Mr. Rouhani was standing in his car, waving through the sunroof as he passed supporters at the airport on Saturday, when opponents began to pelt the vehicle. Security guards scrambled to shield the president with an umbrella as other protesters blocked the road by praying on the pavement.
“Long live Rouhani, man of change,” the president’s backers shouted, as a small police contingent struggled to control the crowd of about 200 that seemed mostly to be of Rouhani supporters. The hard-liners responded by shouting, “Our people are awake and hate America.”
Security guards eventually pulled Mr. Rouhani back inside his car as it sped off, leaving supporters and opponents behind, some pushing and shoving one another. One protester was almost run over after he threw himself in front of Mr. Rouhani’s car.
Analysts expressed surprise that the protest was allowed, given the tight controls over public gatherings, and it raised the possibility that some in the country’s opaque political hierarchy were sending a message of displeasure over last week’s sudden turn of events. It is widely believed that the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supported Mr. Rouhani’s suggestions of an openness to dialogue over the nuclear program during his visit to the United Nations General Assembly last week. But the ayatollah has not yet spoken in public about the New York trip.
The phone call with Mr. Obama came just days after Mr. Rouhani skipped a luncheon at the United Nations were the two leaders had been expected to shake hands. But a meeting on Thursday between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was described as constructive and led Iranian officials to contact the White House on Friday to suggest the phone call, American officials said.
Mr. Rouhani received the phone call from Mr. Obama as he was on his way to Kennedy Airport on Friday, the first contact between American and Iranian presidents since before the hostage crisis 30 years ago.
In comments after his arrival in Tehran, Mr. Rouhani elaborated on the call.
“Yesterday as we were getting ready to head to the airport, the White House called and expressed willingness to set up a phone call between the American president and me,” the semiofficial Fars News agency quoted Mr. Rouhani as saying.
“A call was made to our ambassador’s cellphone,” Mr. Rouhani said. “The conversation mostly focused on the nuclear issue.”
The Iranian president also addressed the question of why he did not meet in person with Mr. Obama.
“A meeting between the two presidents needs some preparation, and since the ground was not prepared, this meeting did not take place,” Fars quoted Mr. Rouhani as saying.
State television had initially been silent on the phone call, but on Saturday it reported that the two presidents had talked.
Mr. Rouhani and his aides spent the week at the General Assembly working to show that they are moderate and reasonable partners and to draw a stark contrast with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Mr. Rouhani has yet to publicly offer any concrete proposals on the nuclear program that Iran insists is for peaceful purposes but many in West see as a cover for a weapons program. Still, Mr. Rouhani emphasized that his government had the authority and the will to reach a nuclear settlement within what he called “a short period of time.”
Many Iranians have appeared anxious for some outreach to the West as strict sanctions over the nuclear program have crippled the economy and increasingly isolated their country. The majority of those gathered at the airport Saturday seemed to back such outreach.
“Welcome, lord of peace,” read a placard held by a woman in a colorful scarf. A man holding a baby smiled as people chanted slogans backing the president.
“I am here to show my support for Mr. Rouhani,” said Vida, 50, a fashion designer who declined to give her last name. Her daughter, wearing purple lipstick – Mr. Rouhani’s campaign color during the June elections – stood behind her, yelling, “Long live reforms.”
Vida smiled. “This time our country will really change,” she said, “I am sure of it.”
Down the road, protesters held placards saying “We will never be humiliated,” and “Talks to U.S. will not solve any problem.”
“We are here because we hate America and Iran will never have relations with America,” said a man who declined to be identified. “Rouhani must listen to us.”
As the president’s car drove off, one man shook his head in despair. “Why must everything always be destroyed?” he asked. “The whole world is looking at us, and now people are throwing eggs at our president.”