Iran's newly elected president urges 'path of moderation' but highlights limits

  • Article by: ALI AKBAR DAREINI , Associated Press
  • Updated: June 17, 2013 - 3:05 PM

Iranian President-elect Hasan Rowhani listens to a question at a press conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 17, 2013.

Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi, Associated Press - Ap

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TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's newly elected president showcased his reform-leaning image Monday by promising a "path of moderation" that includes greater openness on Tehran's nuclear program and overtures to Washington. He also made clear where he draws the line: No halt to uranium enrichment and no direct U.S. dialogue without a pledge to stay out of Iranian affairs.

Hasan Rowhani's first post-victory news conference was a study in what may make his presidency tick.

Rowhani may be hailed as a force for change, but he also appears to carry a deep and self-protective streak of pragmatism. He knows he can only push his views on outreach and detente as far as allowed by the country's real powers, the ruling clerics and their military protectors, the Revolutionary Guard.

Many of Rowhani's statements reflected these boundaries, which could later expand or contract depending on how much the theocracy wants to endorse his agenda.

When he appealed to treat "old wounds" with the U.S., he also echoed the ruling clerics' position that no breakthroughs can occur as long as Washington is seen as trying to undermine their hold on power. Rowhani's urging for greater "nuclear transparency" as a path to roll back sanctions was also punctuated by a hard-liner stance: No chance to stop the uranium enrichment labs at the heart of the stalemate with the West and its allies.

Rowhani spoke eloquently about a "new era" on the international stage but avoided direct mention of the sweeping crackdowns at home since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

At the end of the news conference, a spectator — whose identity was not immediately known — yelled out for the release of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest for more than two years. Rowhani smiled but made no comment.

"You can make any kind of promises you want," said Merhzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle East Studies program at Syracuse University. "At the end of the day, it's the ruling clerics that decide whether they go anywhere."

There is no doubt, however, that the overall tone of Rowhani's remarks resonates well in the West. The White House and others have already signaled cautious hope that Rowhani's presence could open new possibilities on diplomacy and efforts to break the impasse over Tehran's disputed nuclear program after four failed negotiating rounds since last year.

Even so, the Obama administration won't welcome Rowhani's election with any new nuclear offer.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is open to new nuclear talks with Iran. But Washington and its international partners first want a response to an offer of sanctions relief for Iranian nuclear concessions they presented in April.

"The ball is in Iran's court," Psaki said Monday in Washington.

If nothing else at the Tehran news conference, the contrast was vivid with Ahmadinejad and his hectoring style.

"We are on a path of moderation. ... We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries," Rowhani told journalists. "We have to build trust."

Rowhani appeared to borrow phrases from another cleric-president, reformist Mohammad Khatami, who preceded Ahmadinejad and opened a range of social and political freedoms that have been largely swept aside in the lockdown atmosphere of recent years.

"The basis of politics is constructive interaction with the world," said Rowhani, wearing a white turban and surrounded by violet flowers — the signature color of his campaign. "Circumstances have changed in the world by this election. ... The new atmosphere will definitely be turned into a new opportunity."

Many questions remain, though. Rowhani sidestepped the issue of Iran's close alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying only that the efforts to end the civil war and restore stability rest with the "Syrian people."

In Paris, Israel's defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, underscored worries among some Israeli officials that their Western allies could hope for Rowhani-inspired breakthroughs while Iran continues "to make progress in their military nuclear project."

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