WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and the newly elected president of Iran signaled willingness to improve ties between their nations Monday, but both leaders made clear that a positive tone may not easily translate into progress in resolving the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
In his first news conference since being elected president of Iran on Friday, moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani said he wanted better relations with Washington. But he ruled out suspending Iran's nuclear enrichment program, the biggest source of tensions between the two governments over the past decade, saying, "Those days are behind us."
"All should know that the next government will not budge defending our inalienable rights," Mr. Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, told reporters at a Tehran think tank that he has helped run.
Mr. Rowhani, to take office Aug. 3, said he wants to reduce tensions with the United States, and called animosity between the two sides "an old wound that must be treated" before relations can be normalized.
Mr. Obama, in his first public comments about the Iranian election, also sounded a hopeful note, saying he wants "a more serious, substantive" engagement with Tehran. But he said Iran's leaders would have to show a genuine willingness to compromise before Washington would agree to roll back the economic sanctions that have crippled the Islamic republic's economy.
"Those will not be lifted in the absence of significant steps in showing the international community that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon," the president said in an interview broadcast Monday night on the "Charlie Rose" show on PBS.
Mr. Obama's comments reflected the complexity of the challenge confronting the administration as it decides how to react to Mr. Rowhani's unexpected, first-round election victory. Administration officials and independent experts expressed cautious optimism over the election of a self-declared reformer, who promised more political freedom for Iranians and a more pragmatic, less confrontational foreign policy.
But current and former administration officials acknowledged that it is far from certain that Mr. Rowhani will have the power to change nuclear policies, which are largely controlled by Iran's unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Equally unclear is whether Mr. Rowhani, a longtime Khamenei ally, has any intention of changing the country's nuclear course.
"The administration has to tread a careful line, being neither gratuitously dismissive nor pre-emptively accommodating," said Michael Singh, who was an adviser on Middle East policy at the National Security Council under then-President George W. Bush. "We'll have to see whether Rowhani means what he says, and whether he really thinks that changes are needed in areas like nuclear policy -- and whether he is empowered to make those changes."
Mr. Obama appeared to rule out immediate easing of economic sanctions, which have dried up more than a third of Iran's oil revenue and slashed the value of the national currency, the rial. Iran's economic troubles are thought to be partly behind Mr. Rowhani's blowout victory over a slate of more-conservative candidates loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei.
"I think we understand that under their system the supreme leader will be making a lot of decisions," Mr. Obama said in the PBS interview, which was recorded Sunday, less than 24 hours after Mr. Rowhani was certified as winner of the election to replace two-term President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "We're going to have to continue to see how this develops and how this evolves over the next several weeks, months, years."