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.
The contrast was vivid with Ahmadinejad’s 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 since been largely swept aside.
“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.”
Although the 64-year-old Rowhani cannot directly set key policies, he might be able to use the strength of his landslide victory and his influential connections, including with former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to shape opinions. Rowhani served as Iran’s first nuclear envoy from 2003-05 during a period of intense deal-making with Europeans.
Rowhani’s aides have said he proposed an accord in 2005 with then-French President Jacques Chirac to allow uranium enrichment in exchange for the highest level of monitoring by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency. The deal did not gain support from other countries such as Britain and the U.S.
In an interview last year with the Iranian magazine Mehr Nameh, Rowhani said he also received a U.S. proposal in 2004, carried by the head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency at the time, Mohamed ElBaradei, for direct dialogue on nuclear and other issues. Rowhani said he passed along the offer to the ruling clerics and “the decision was that we should not negotiate with the U.S.”
Rowhani has not given any clear details on his advice for the current talks, which face pressure from factions in Israel and the U.S. urging greater consideration of military options.
But Rowhani appears to favor the general contours of the reported French-backed deal for greater openness as the way to ease Western sanctions over Iran’s nuclear efforts. The sanctions have slashed oil revenue and contributed to a spike in inflation. “If sanctions have any benefits, they will only benefit Israel,” he said at the news conference.
He outlined “step by step” measures to reassure the West about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The West suspects that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon. Iranian leaders, including Rowhani, insist Iran seeks reactors only for energy and medical applications.
Enriched uranium is used as fuel for energy and research reactors but it can be further boosted to make a nuclear warhead.
“The first step will be showing greater transparency. We are ready to show greater transparency and make clear that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s actions are totally within international frameworks,” he said. “The second step is promoting mutual confidence. We’ll take measures in both fields. The first goal is that no new sanctions are imposed. Then, that the (existing) sanctions are reduced.”
Rowhani, though, reaffirmed the positions that have contributed to the logjam in talks so far: Iran’s insistence that Washington “should recognize all of Iran’s rights, including the nuclear rights.”
He further added that any hope for one-on-one dialogue with the U.S. depends on the improbable starting point already set out by the ruling clerics. “The Americans need to specify that they will never intervene in Iran’s internal affairs,” Rowhani said.