U.S. to prod new Iran president to table

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's top foreign policy aides said Sunday that they planned to press Iran's newly elected president to resume the negotiations over his country's nuclear program that derailed in the spring.

But while the election of Hassan Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator who is considered a moderate compared with the other candidates, was greeted by some Obama administration officials as the best of all likely outcomes, they said it did not change the fact that only the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would make the final decision about any concessions to the West.

Even so, they said they wanted to test Mr. Rowhani quickly, noting that although he argued for a moderate tone in dealing with the United States and its allies when he was a negotiator, he also boasted in 2006 that Iran had used a previous suspension of nuclear enrichment to make major strides in building its nuclear infrastructure.

On the CBS program "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Denis McDonough, Mr. Obama's chief of staff, said of Mr. Rowhani's election over the weekend: "I see it as a potentially hopeful sign. I think the question for us now is: If he is interested in, as he has said in his campaign events, mending his relations -- Iran's relations with the rest of the world -- there's an opportunity to do that." But Mr. McDonough said doing so would require Iran "to come clean on this illicit nuclear program."

Another senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted that for Mr. Rowhani, "wanting to end Iran's isolation is different from agreeing to move the nuclear program to a place where it would take them years to build a weapon."

Many of the leading strategists on Iran from Mr. Obama's first term have become increasingly critical of the president's handling of the issue this year. Early optimism that Iranian negotiators were ready to discuss the outlines of a deal -- one that would have frozen the most immediately worrisome elements of the country's nuclear program in return for an acknowledgment of the country's right to enrich uranium under a highly obtrusive inspection regime -- faded in April, when the talks collapsed.

Mr. Rowhani gave a glimpse of his views on negotiating strategy in a speech in 2004, which leaked out of Iran two years later. "While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran," he recalled at the time, "we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan," a major production site. "By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan."

The situation Mr. Rowhani inherits today is far more complex, and more fraught. The conflict in Syria has raised the prospect that Iran could lose its one ally in the region. It has also given Tehran new opportunities to frustrate Washington and Europe with its military support of the Syrian government. Sanctions against Iran are harsher now than ever, cutting the country's oil production by about a million barrels a day. Iran's currency has plummeted in value.

Wendy Sherman, the chief negotiator for the United States, characterized her latest encounters with the Iranians, as the talks collapsed, this way: "It was all 'We need sanctions relief and let's see how little we can do to get it.' "

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