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Rouhani calls US a 'great' nation in sharp change

Saturday - 9/28/2013, 5:28am  ET

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani smiles at the end of a news conference at the Millennium Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

EDITH M. LEDERER
Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the United States a "great" nation Friday in a sharp reversal from his predecessors and expressed hope that at the very least the two governments can stop the escalation of tensions.

Wrapping up his first trip to the United States as Iran's new leader, Rouhani said President Barack Obama struck a new tone in his U.N. speech this week, which he welcomed.

He said he believes the first step to a meeting between the two leaders was taken Thursday at a meeting on Iran's nuclear program, where the foreign ministers of both nations talked for the first time in six years. The White House announced Friday afternoon that Rouhani and Obama spoke on the phone.

"I want it to be the case that this trip will be a first step, and a beginning for better and constructive relations with countries of the world as well as a first step for a better relationship between the two great nations of Iran and the United States of America," Rouhani told a press conference at a hotel near U.N. headquarters.

Iran and the United States have traded harsh rhetoric for years.

During the 1979 Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile, seized power and declared the U.S., which was a strong supporter of the ousted Shah of Iran, the "Great Satan." He set the tone for Iranian officials who came after him. The U.S. was equally critical, with then-President George W. Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, declaring Iran part of his "axis of evil" along with North Korea and Iraq.

Rouhani, looking to the future of U.S.-Iranian relations, expressed hope that "the views of our people, the understanding of each other, will grow, and at the level of the two governments that at the very least we can, as a first step, stop further escalation of tensions and then reduce tension as a next step and then pave the way for achieving of mutual interests."

The Iranian president was upbeat about his four-day visit to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly's ministerial session, reeling off a long list of leaders he met and saying "I believe that our success was greater than our expectation, especially with the European countries ... and I think that the path really has been paved to expand relations in various centers, key world economies."

Iran's economy has been hit hard by four rounds of U.N. sanctions for its failure to suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can be used to make fuel for both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. The U.S. and its allies have taken even more devastating measures targeting Iran's ability to conduct international bank transfers and to export oil.

Rouhani has come across as a more moderate face of the hard-line clerical regime in Tehran. He said he has a mandate from the Iranian people, who opposed "extremism" and voted for "moderation." He said this has created a "new environment" that could pave the way for better relations with the West.

He said Iran would put forth a proposal at talks in Geneva on Oct. 15-16 aimed at resolving the standoff over his country's nuclear program and easing international sanctions.

"We hope that an even more effective step will be taken in Geneva in order to settle the nuclear issue," Rouhani said, without elaborating.

He expressed hope that with "sufficient will on both sides -- and I assure you that on the Iranian side this will is there fully, 100 percent -- that within a very short time there will be a settlement on the nuclear file and ... I believe that in the not too distant future, we'll be able to resolve and settle the nuclear issue."

Resolving the nuclear issue will "pave the way for Iran's better relations with the West," including the expansion of economic and cultural ties, he said.

Rouhani said he was encouraged by what he has heard recently from Western officials.

"In speaking with senior European officials and also hearing Mr. Obama ... it seemed that they sounded different compared to the past, and I view that as a positive step to the resettlement of the differences between the Islamic Republic between the Republic of Iran and the West," he said.

He said he did not meet with Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly this week because "both sides were convinced that the timetable was too short to plan a meeting of two presidents" and "ensure that its conclusion would be solid."

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