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Iran's new president looks westward for nuke talks

Wednesday - 6/26/2013, 9:25am  ET

In this Monday, June 10, 2013 photo, Iranian President elect, Hasan Rouhani, a former Iran's top nuclear negotiator, waves, from his bus, during his presidential election campaign tour to the western city of Sanandaj, Iran. Just a week before Iran's election gatekeepers announced the presidential ballot, Rouhani described the U.S. as the world's "sheriff" and said direct talks with Washington are the only way for breakthroughs in the nuclear standoff. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Hasan Rouhani knew there was an element of risk.

Just a week before Iran's election gatekeepers announced the presidential ballot, Rouhani said one-on-one talks with Washington are the only way for breakthroughs in the nuclear standoff, given that the United States -- as he put it -- is the world's "sheriff."

Such a public portrayal of America's importance and the need to make overtures to it undoubtedly rattled a few among Iran's ruling clerics, who decide which candidates are cleared to run. Yet they allowed Rouhani to enter the race, and to the surprise of many, he surged to a runaway victory.

Rouhani's repeated emphasis on direct outreach to Washington may now have a chance for real traction among the ultimate decision-makers in Iran -- the ruling clerics and the powerful Revolutionary Guard. They have long opposed bilateral talks, insisting they would do no good. But the lack of major blowback to Rouhani's speech in mid-May signaled that the idea is no longer a taboo for the establishment, even if it is not yet entirely convinced. Another sign came from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in March hinted he would not stand in the way.

"We have disagreements with the U.S. on regional and international matters, but obviously friendship or hostility with the world is not permanent," Rouhani told an audience at Tehran's Sharif University in his May address. "Every country can improve its relations with others."

Rouhani was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 and he has said he is convinced he could have sealed a deal if Tehran had been talking directly to Washington at the time. Efforts are under way for a new, fourth round of the multilateral nuclear talks bringing together Iran and the U.S. and other world powers. Earlier rounds have brought no headway.

It's far too early to gain anything more than hints from Iran on whether Rouhani's election this month could shift tactics in nuclear negotiations.

Rouhani does not formally take office until August. Washington has said it appreciates Rouhani's appeals for more engagement, but knows the meaningful decisions are made higher up by Iran's theocracy.

Moreover, Rouhani has made clear he has the same red lines as the ruling clerics: He said in his first post-victory news conference that Iran will never surrender its ability to enrich uranium -- the central issue of the disputes.

Still, the next chief nuclear envoy on the Iranian side is almost certain to side closer to Rouhani's view that seeking one-on-one talks with Washington is a worthy pursuit. It's widely expected that hard-liner Saeed Jalili -- who finished a distant third behind Rouhani in the June 14 election -- will be sent packing by the ruling clerics to avoid internal tensions.

It may be weeks before a shortlist for successors is known. But some possible names mentioned include former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who finished next-to-last in the presidential race; Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former envoy to the U.N., and Amir Hossein Zamaninia, a former member of Iran's negotiating team.

No dates have been proposed to possibly resume talks between Iran and a six-nation bloc, the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. The four previous rounds since last year have foundered on a central deadlock: The U.S. and others insist Iran sharply scales back its uranium enrichment as a first step, while Iran says the West should ease sanctions as an opening offer.

The West and allies fear Iran's enrichment labs could eventually produce material for a nuclear weapon -- and some critics in Israel and elsewhere believe that extended negotiations will only give Iran more time to advance its program.

Rouhani "may well create an opening," wrote Dennis Ross, a former White House envoy for the Middle East and South Asia, in a commentary published Tuesday in The New York Times. "But we should be on our guard: It must be an opening to clarify what is possible and to test outcomes, not to engage in unending talks for their own sake."

Iranian officials, including Rouhani, say that Iran will not give up control over the entire nuclear cycle, which turns uranium ore into reactor-ready fuel, but that it only seeks the technology for energy production and medical uses.

"The bottom line is that Rouhani's views are not a wholesale change from the ruling system's. They are pretty much the same on all the central points on what Iran wants," said Mohammad Ali Shabani, a British-based Middle East expert concentrating on Iranian affairs. "The issue is over tactics and how to get there."

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