President-Elect of Iran Talks of Easing Tensions With U.S.

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TEHRAN -- President-elect Hassan Rowhani of Iran, speaking on Monday for the first time since his election victory, said he wanted to reduce tensions with the United States but ruled out direct talks between the two estranged nations.

In his first news conference after winning Friday's presidential election promising more freedoms and better relations with the outside world, Mr. Rowhani called the issue of nonexistent relations between Iran and the United States "an old wound, which must be healed."

Iran, he said, wants to reduce tensions between the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations and are at odds over the nature of Iran's nuclear enrichment program.

Echoing similar statements from the departing administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Rowhani said there would be no direct talks until the United States stopped "interfering in Iran's domestic politics," respected what he called Iran's nuclear rights and lifted economic sanctions.

"All should know that the next government will not budge from defending our inalienable rights," Mr. Rowhani told reporters. He emphasized that, like those of his predecessors, his government would not be prepared to suspend uranium enrichment, something he had done as a nuclear negotiator in 2004 as a trust-building measure in discussions with European countries.

"We have passed that period," he said of that time. "We are now in a different situation."

Instead, Mr. Rowhani, who will take office on Aug. 3, offered more openness concerning Iran's nuclear program, saying that was his way of working to end the sanctions that have severely damaged the Iranian economy.

Iran has always contended that its uranium enrichment is for peaceful purposes, rejecting Western suspicions that the country is seeking the capability to build weapons.

"First, we are ready to increase transparency and clarify our measures within the international framework," he said. "Of course our activities are already transparent, but still we increase it," Mr. Rowhani said. "Second, we will increase the trust between Iran and the world."

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly sought access to the military site of Parchin, near Tehran. But Iran has denied such a visit by saying that military sites are not part of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iranian diplomats often refer to as the "international framework."

But indirectly underlining the effects of the sanctions, Mr. Rowhani said he was already working with the departing government to prevent food shortages. "People are in instant need of basic staples," he said. The government would increase domestic production in order to stabilize prices and rising unemployment, he said without elaborating.

The cleric, who is nicknamed the "diplomat sheik" in Iran for his white turban and pragmatic streak, said his victory and the high turnout in Friday's election had altered the view that other countries have of Iran.

"On a global level, our image has changed," he said. "The atmosphere in the global opinion has changed, and this provides new opportunities for us." Interaction with the rest of the world -- except for Israel, which Iran does not recognize -- is important, he stressed.

"I hope all countries will seize this opportunity created by our people and their vote," he said.

He paid special attention to neighboring countries, especially the Persian Gulf kingdoms that reduced relations with Iran under Mr. Ahmadinejad's presidency.

"The priority of my government's foreign policy will be to have excellent relations with all neighboring countries," he said. Mr. Rowhani singled out Iran's biggest regional rival, the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which supports rebels in Syria while Iran supports the government of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad.

"We are not only neighbors but also brothers," he said. "Every year hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit Mecca. We have many common points with Saudi Arabia."

On Syria, he made the same points offered by Iranian diplomats over the last two years. The Syrian people should decide their own fate in the presidential election in 2014. "It's up to them to decide," Mr. Rowhani said, without commenting on the military support to Mr. Assad provided by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization that is financed by Iran.

"We hope that peace will return to this country with the help of all countries," he said. "Until the next election in Syria in 2014, the current government must be officially recognized by the world countries."

He noted the street parties that erupted on Saturday after his official victory, saying the "time of sadness for Iranians" was finished. But he did not offer any clear examples of the measures he would take to lift the security atmosphere that has pervaded the country during Mr. Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Mr. Rowhani said he would never forget the promises he made during his campaign. "But we need to set our priorities first," he said. "We need time."

Toward the end of the news conference, an unidentified spectator yelled out for the release of Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition leader who has been under house arrest since 2011. Mr. Rowhani made no comment.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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