Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Rouhani urges 'path of moderation'

New Iranian president Hasan Rowhani has held his first news conference (AP)

Iran's newly-elected president has promised to follow a "path of moderation" and bring more openness over the country's nuclear programme, but sided with the hard-line Islamic establishment that refuses to consider halting uranium enrichment.

However, the overall tone of Hasan Rouhani's first post-election news conference, will be viewed by the West as further evidence that his victory last week could open new possibilities for dialogue to ease tensions over Tehran's disputed nuclear operations.

Mr Rouhani also had a dual message for the US. He urged for no additional tensions and said both countries should "look to the future." But he repeated past statements from Iran's leadership that one-on-one talks are only possible if the US vows to "never interfere in Iranian affairs."

Many other questions remain. Mr Rouhani 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."

He also must balance the hopes of many supporters who want him to push hard against the ruling system. At the end of the news conference, a spectator yelled out for the release of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest for more than two years. Mr Rouhani made no comment.

He does not have authority to set major policies, such as the direction of the nuclear programme or relations with the West. All those decisions rest with the ruling clerics and the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which have so far appeared to embrace him but could easily turn against him if he is perceived as a threat to their grip on power.

Mr Rouhani, however, can use the strength of his landslide victory and his influential connections, including with former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to try to sway policies. He also will serve as Iran's main international envoy and is almost certain to present a much milder tone than his combative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is to formally give up power in August.

This could help lower political friction between Iran and the West and also undercut calls by some factions in Israel and the US to study military options against Iran's nuclear facilities.

The 64-year-old Mr Rouhani - the only cleric in the presidential race - described his election as opening a "new era" and said he would "follow the path of moderation and justice, not extremism."

He also said dealing with the economy was among his priorities, in a clear reference to how Western sanctions over Iran's nuclear efforts have helped spike inflation to more than 30% and slashed vital revenue. Previously, Mr Rouhani - a former nuclear negotiator - criticised Iranian positions that have led to increased sanctions but also described the economic pressures as "oppressive."

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