TEHRAN, Iran — A top adviser to Iran's supreme leader says the election of centrist Hasan Rouhani as the country's president gives an opportunity to world powers to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear program – but that Tehran will never again suspend its nuclear activities.
Ali Akbar Velayati, who advises Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on key matters including the nuclear issue, told The Associated Press that the onus was on the West to reach out to Iran, but pledged that Iran would respond with a "different language" from the bombastic rhetoric used by Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The election of Rouhani has revived hopes that a deal can be reached with the West to ease concerns over Iran's nuclear intentions. So far, the change from Iran's side has been in terms of a softer tone – but not a softening of its determination to fully pursue its nuclear program. Tehran insists its program is entirely peaceful, but the United States and its allies believe it aims to have the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
Rouhani, who won a landslide victory in June 14 presidential election, has vowed to follow a "policy of moderation" and ease tensions with the outside world, saying Iranians voted for change. He insisted Saturday that the nation wants a change in foreign policy tactics but not principles.
Still, a change in tone from Iran would not be insignificant. Ahmadinejad used to call U.N. resolutions "worthless papers," comparing them to "annoying flies" and "a used tissue," and the outgoing top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili followed hard-line tactics in talks. Four rounds of nuclear talks since last year between Iran and members of the six-nation group – the five permanent U.N. Security Council nations plus Germany – have failed so far to make significant headway.
The comments by Velayati, a close confidante of Khamenei, indicated that the country's top leadership supports dropping the tough rhetoric and taking a more diplomatic approach, convinced that it can maintain its nuclear program and ease tensions with the West at the same time.
Velayati also hinted that the leadership sees potential for progress by holding bilateral talks with individual Western powers – including the U.S. – an idea that Khamenei has been cold to in the past.
Velayati told the AP that Rouhani's election "could be a test for the goodwill of Western countries ... They (the West) have to use this opportunity."
He gave no specifics on how the U.S. and its allies should do so. But he suggested they would find Iran more responsive.
"Repeating the same language that we had before, I don't think it is useful. We have to talk with a different language. The same purposes but a different language," said Velayati, a former foreign minister.
He emphasized that the Iranian negotiating team should be "very active" not only in the multilateral "5+1" negotiations, but also should "talk to the six countries one by one directly and indirectly." He added that "solving such a complex problem requires more wisdom."
Still, he underlined that the West must understand that final decisions on the nuclear issue are made by the supreme leader Khamenei, not Rouhani.
"Foreign policy, including the nuclear issue, is in the hands of the leadership of this country," he said. He said Khamenei has set the "principles" and the government has to abide by them, so Rouhani's administration will follow "the same trend strategically as the former government."
But, he said, Iran must change "from a technical and tactical point of view."
His repeated references to one-on-one talks seemed to suggest a warming by Tehran to the idea. Previously, Khamenei has said he does not forbid one-on-one talks with the United States but he expressed deep skepticism they would do any good, saying Washington was not trustworthy. The U.S. has also seemed unconvinced that such talks would bring results.
Velayati did not rule out such direct talks, though he said it depends on U.S. behavior. "If the behavior of the United States is the same as it was before, I don't think it would happen. They have to come down from their position. They still believe that they are a superpower," he said.
The U.S. and its allies have imposed punishing economic sanctions, including oil and banking restrictions that have shut Iran out of the international financial system, to press Tehran to stop enrichment. Enrichment is a process that can turn uranium into fuel for a nuclear reactor – or if enriched to a much higher purity, into the material needed for a warhead. Iran insists it will not give up its right under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium and develop other aspects of a peaceful nuclear program.
Velayati said Iran will not again suspend enrichment because Tehran had a bitter experience when it did so in 2003 as a confidence-building measure.
"We stopped any kind of enrichment for two years. What was the result? Nothing. Every day they used to put an extra claim on their former claims. Why must we repeat this experience?"
Other comments by Velayati fueled speculation that Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was Iran's top U.N. envoy during the past decade and is now the new foreign minister, will become Tehran's new top nuclear negotiator. Iran could be counting that Zarif, a veteran diplomat with a doctorate in international law and policy from the University of Denver, can bring to the negotiating team greater understanding of the American way of thinking.
"Zarif is a career diplomat and a very good negotiator. He has had very good and efficient experience in diplomacy," Velayati said. "With the presence of Dr. Zarif at the top of Iran's Foreign Ministry . we do hope we can finally reach a solution not only on the question of the nuclear issue but also other issues in the region."
Velayati said sanctions can't force Iran to back down, saying Iran has faced Western sanctions for three decades.
"If you have a country, like Iran, with 15 neighbors, you can't impose effective sanctions. We could find solutions to make these sanctions useless," he said.
Velayati also said Iran will continue to support Bashar Assad's government in Syria, which is fighting rebels backed by Western and some Arab states.
"We strongly believe that the government of Syria will remain in power," he said. "The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran won't hesitate to help the Syrian people and the Syrian government to defend their rights and their territory and their territorial integrity."