Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is vowing his country will never pursue a nuclear bomb, in the latest sign the newly elected leader is open to improving relations with the United States. In an interview from Tehran with NBC News, President Rouhani said Iran has never sought nuclear weapons and that it would under no circumstances "seek any weapons of mass destruction."
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Iran has for years insisted its nuclear program is peaceful. The U.S. and some of its allies disagree, and have helped implement several rounds of sanctions that have battered Iran's economy.
More moderate leader
Rouhani, who was elected in June, is considered more moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has for months suggested Iran should improve relations with the West.
Some in Washington have been skeptical, saying true power lies with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Rouhani said his government has "full power," "complete authority," and "sufficient political latitude" to solve the nuclear issue.
Barry Pavel, a former defense policy adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, said that Rouhani's recent statements reflect a "real opportunity" to engage Iran on its nuclear program.
"There is one senior decision maker, and that's the supreme leader. So in that sense, it appears that the proposals and engagement do have his direct sponsorship and support," Pavell said.
Rouhani's comments come just before he travels to the U.S. next week for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
Pavel, who is the Director of the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, says it is conceivable that Rouhani could come prepared to make further goodwill gestures.
"It's possible he'll make a dramatic concession. That would be the appropriate timing and venue," Pavell said. "But there should also be discussion of this in the more confidential setting of the P5+1 talks."
No Obama-Rouhani meeting planned
White House officials say there are no current plans for President Obama to meet Rouhani during his visit. But they have acknowledged Obama recently exchanged letters with President Rouhani - a rare step for the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations with one another.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's letter indicated the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that would allow Iran to demonstrate its program was exclusively for peaceful purposes. Rouhani told NBC News that Obama's letter was "positive and constructive."
Iran on Wednesday also freed at least 11 prominent political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who had defended opposition activists and had been jailed for three years.
The U.S. State Department welcomed the move, noting President Rouhani's repeated pledges during his presidential campaign "to restore and expand freedoms for all Iranians."
It called for President Rouhani to "keep his promises to the Iranian people" and urged steps to improve the country's human rights condition, including the release all of its prisoners of conscience.
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