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President Rouhani says Iran will never develop nuclear weapons

It's Rouhani's strongest signal yet that he aims to keep a pledge to improve ties with the West. Ten activist prisoners are freed.

September 18, 2013|By Ramin Mostaghim and Carol J. Williams
  • Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, seen in 2010, was among the activists who were freed from prison without explanation.
Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, seen in 2010, was among the… (European Pressphoto Agency )

TEHRAN — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed Wednesday in his first U.S. media interview since taking office that Iran would never develop nuclear weapons.

The statement to NBC News correspondent Ann Curry was the strongest indication to date that the 64-year-old cleric is making good on campaign promises to improve relations with the West.

Earlier Wednesday, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and at least 10 other religious and political activists were released from prison, with no explanation for the reprieve by the new government.

Rouhani told NBC that President Obama had written to congratulate him after his Aug. 3 inauguration and to raise "some issues."

"From my point of view, the tone of the letter was positive and constructive," Rouhani said. "It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future."

Since Rouhani took office, officials have been sending tentative signals of willingness to end Iran's international isolation and to ease the economic strains caused by sanctions imposed because of Iran's nuclear program.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has renounced nuclear weapons as a contradiction of Islamic values. On Tuesday, he said Iran would show "heroic flexibility" to resolve the nuclear dispute.

Iran has long insisted that its enrichment of uranium is intended solely for peaceful purposes. But Tehran's refinement of the nuclear fuel to 20% purity is higher than needed for power generation and medical research, leading some to suspect that Iran plans to convert it to weapons-grade fuel.

The release of Sotoudeh and others accused of antigovernment actions under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to signal a relaxation of political repression.

Sotoudeh drew the wrath of the former government for defending women accused of violating Iran's strict morality laws and advocating for juveniles on death row.

"I do not know on what basis they have released me," a stunned Sotoudeh told the Los Angeles Times just after being driven to her Tehran home. She called on the new government to reverse the convictions of everyone charged over the disputed 2009 presidential election, which kept Ahmadinejad in power for another four years.

Sotoudeh, 49, was awarded the European Union's 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and Obama appealed for her release in a March 2011 address marking the Persian New Year.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran welcomed the releases and urged the Rouhani government to take further steps to correct the "urgent human rights situation" before his trip to New York next week to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

Others released from prison include Mohsen Aminzadeh, a former deputy foreign minister under moderate President Mohammad Khatami, and Mir Taher Mousavi, a reformist parliamentarian arrested in August 2012 upon returning from a trip to Turkey.

Former political prisoner Nader Karimi Juni called the releases "a good sign" that might herald freedom for the two most prominent opponents of Ahmadinejad. Former 2009 presidential contenders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have been under house arrest since February 2011, when they sought to stage rallies in support of the "Arab Spring" pro-democracy movement.

Iran analysts viewed the latest moves by Tehran as a necessary turn toward moderation in a nation suffering a 40% inflation rate and widespread food shortages.

"There are many signs of political opening at home and conciliatory disposition abroad," Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford, said of the apparently warming relations between his homeland and the West. "The dire economic situation has, in my view, convinced the majority of the regime that what Khamenei called 'heroic compromise' is urgently needed."

Najmedin Meshkati, an Iranian-born USC engineering professor and State Department advisor in the first Obama administration, called the recent developments harbingers of "a goodwill atmosphere" for the U.N. session, where Obama and Rouhani will cross paths.

"I'm very optimistic we're on the verge of an improvement," Meshkati said, predicting that even a small signal of hospitality from Obama to the visiting Rouhani would go a long way toward overcoming the hostile legacy of the Ahmadinejad years.

"The ball is in the U.S. court. Rouhani will be a guest in the United States and it would be a very gracious gesture by President Obama to extend the 'unclenched hand' he promised in his inauguration," Meshkati said. "A little, courteous handshake, a word of welcome, that's all that needs to happen at this level."

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Williams from Los Angeles.

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