x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Iran's Rowhani won't halt uranium enrichment programme – but pledges greater openness

New president promises greater openness over the country's nuclear programme, but refuses to consider halting uranium enrichment.

Iranian president Hassan Rowhani says Iran would be ready to reduce tensions with arch-enemy the United States based on goodwill and mutual respect.
Iranian president Hassan Rowhani says Iran would be ready to reduce tensions with arch-enemy the United States based on goodwill and mutual respect.

TEHRAN // Iran's newly elected president, Hassan Rowhani, pledged yesterday to follow a "path of moderation" and promised greater openness over the country's nuclear programme, but sided with the hardline Islamic establishment that refuses to consider halting uranium enrichment.

The overall tone of Mr Rowhani's first post-election news conference will likely be viewed by the West as further evidence that his stunning victory last week could open new possibilities for dialogue to ease tensions over Tehran's disputed nuclear programme.

In reaching out to Washington, Mr Rowhani also had a dual message. 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".

Mr Rowhani sidestepped the issue of Iran's close alliance with the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, saying only that the efforts to end the civil war 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 the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest for more than two years. Mr Rowhani did not respond.

Mr Rowhani 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 Mr Rowhani but could easily turn against him if he is perceived as a threat to their grip on power.

Mr Rowhani can use the strength of his landslide victory and his influential connections, including with the 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 United States to study military options against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Mr Rowhani, 64, described his election as opening a "new era" and said he would "follow the path of moderation and justice, not extremism".

"We have to enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries," he said. "We have to build trust."

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 per cent and slashed vital revenue.

Previously, Mr Rowhani - a former nuclear negotiator - criticised Iranian positions that have led to increased sanctions but also described the economic pressures by the US and others as "oppressive".

"The Iranian nation has done nothing to deserve sanctions. The work it has done has been within international frameworks," he said. "If sanctions have any benefits, they will only benefit Israel. They have no benefits for others."

Mr Rowhani promised to encourage "step by step" measures to reassure the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The West claims that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon. Iranian leaders, including Mr 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," he said.

"We are ready to show greater transparency and make clear that the Islamic Republic of Iran's actions are totally within international frameworks.

"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."

Mr Rowhani formally takes office on August 3.