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New Iranian president talks of reduced tensions with U.S.

Hasan Rowhani, 64, takes office as president  of Iran on Aug. 3.

Hasan Rowhani, 64, takes office as president of Iran on Aug. 3.

TEHRAN, Iran — President-elect Hasan 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 election promising more freedoms and better relations with the outside world, 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, Rowhani, 64, said there would be no direct talks until the United States stopped "interfering in Iran's domestic politics," respect what he called Iran's nuclear rights and lift economic sanctions.

"All should know that the next government will not budge from defending our inalienable rights," Rowhani told reporters.

Rowhani's victory has been received with cautious optimism at the White House, which issued a statement on Saturday congratulating Iranians on "making their voices heard."

President Barack Obama appeared to go further in an interview with Charlie Rose on Sunday before the president left for a summit meeting in Northern Ireland.

"Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way," Obama said in the interview, broadcast Monday night on PBS. "I do think that there's a possibility that they decide, the Iranians decide to take us up on our offer to engage in a more serious, substantive way."

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. 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 their obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iranian diplomats often refer to as the "international framework."

But indirectly underlining the effects of the sanctions, 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.

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

"The priority of my government's foreign policy will be to have excellent relations with all neighboring countries," he said. 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 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," Rowhani said, without commenting on the military support to 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."

New Iranian president talks of reduced tensions with U.S. 06/17/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 1:00am]

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