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Iran's president reaches West before heading to UN

Sunday - 9/22/2013, 9:28pm  ET

In this Sept. 10, 2013 photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks during an interview with state television at the presidency in Tehran, Iran. President Barack Obama and Iran’s new president are heading to New York next week for the U.N.’s annual meeting of the General Assembly, and could share the first exchange between American and Iranian leaders in more than three decades. (AP Photo/Presidency Office, Rouzbeh Jadidoleslam)

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- On the eve of a landmark trip to attend the U.N. General Assembly, Iran's president offered Sunday his most expansive vision that a deal to settle the impasse over Tehran's nuclear program could open doors for greater cooperation on regional flash points such as the Syrian civil war.

The linkage of Middle East affairs and broad-stroke rhetoric by Hasan Rouhani served as something of a final sales pitch to President Barack Obama ahead of the U.N. gathering, where Rouhani hopes to garner pledges from Western envoys to restart stalled nuclear negotiations as a way to ease painful economic sanctions.

Rouhani also must try to sell his policies of outreach to skeptical Iranian hard-liners, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard. Failure to return from New York with some progress -- either pledges to revive nuclear talks or hints that the U.S. and its allies may consider relaxing sanctions -- could increase pressures on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to withdraw his apparent backing for Rouhani's overtures with Washington.

It adds up to a high-stakes week ahead for Rouhani in his first gathering with Western leaders since his inauguration last month.

While his effort to open new diplomatic space is genuine, it's still unclear where it could find footholds. Obama has exchanged letters with Rouhani and says he would welcome groundbreaking direct talks after a nearly 35-year diplomatic estrangement. But Washington previously has rejected offering a significant rollback in sanctions -- Rouhani's main goal -- as a way to push ahead nuclear talks.

Rouhani and Obama are scheduled to speak within hours of each other Tuesday at the General Assembly's annual meeting, setting up the possibility of the first face-to-face exchange between American and Iranian leaders since shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"The Iranian nation is ready to talk and negotiate with the West, provided that there are no preconditions, the talks are on equal terms and there is mutual respect. (The West) should not consider only its own interests. Mutual interests should be considered," Rouhani said at a military parade for the 33rd anniversary of Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, which set off a ruinous eight-year war. The speech was carried live by state TV.

He added that if Western countries acknowledge Iran's "rights" -- a reference that includes the contentious issue of uranium enrichment -- it would be a path toward mutual "cooperation, logic, peace and friendship."

"Then we will be able to resolve regional, even global, problems," Rouhani said.

Iran and the United States are at odds over the civil war in Syria. Tehran backs President Bashar Assad, while Washington supports rebels trying to oust him. Iran also is the patron for anti-Israel forces led by Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Still, Iran has faced a potential quandary over Western claims that Assad's forces used chemical weapons in an attack last month. Iran has strongly opposed chemical arms since suffering attacks with mustard gas and other agents by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's military in the 1980s.

Rouhani has worked hard to recast Iran's international image after eight years under his combative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the new Iranian leader has not strayed from Tehran's unshakable position: Its right to conduct nuclear activities that the West fears could be a step toward weapons development, especially uranium enrichment. Iran says its program is peaceful, intended for purposes including research and cancer treatment, and enrichment is necessary for the fueling of reactors.

"Iran has joined all treaties, including the non-proliferation treaty, or NPT, and it is loyal to it," Rouhani said.

Khamenei, who issued a religious decree nearly a decade ago declaring nuclear weapons contrary to Islamic values, seems to have given critical support to Rouhani -- a backing withheld from Ahmadinejad after fierce internal political feuds. This potentially gives Rouhani's government more room to offer proposals to the six-nation negotiating group, the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.

In a significant step, Khamenei last week suggested it was a moment for Iran to exercise "heroic flexibility" in diplomacy, while not giving important ground to its foes.

But some hard-line groups have warned Rouhani not to misinterpret Khamenei's comment as a mandate to restore ties with the West at any cost.

"Based on historical experience, it's wise and necessary to have skeptical monitoring of the behavior of the White House," said the statement Saturday from the Revolutionary Guard, whose missile arsenal was on display in the military parade, including the surface-to-surface Sajjil capable of reaching Israel and U.S. bases in the region.

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