Thursday, May 19, 2005

Rafsanjani Urges U.S. to Begin Thaw in Ties

The New York Times:
The man thought most likely to be Iran's next president said on Thursday he wanted to repair relations with the United States, but Washington had to take the first steps to end 25 years of enmity.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in his first interview since declaring his bid for an unprecedented third term as president, also said he would never abandon the country's nuclear program, comparing such a step to ceding Iranian land.

"It is like giving away part of our territory,'' Rafsanjani told Reuters. "This is our nation's legitimate right ... especially when it is in accordance with international laws and regulations.'' READ MORE

Rafsanjani, 70, served two terms as president from 1989 to 1997 and announced last week he would run in a June 17 election. Opinion polls put him well ahead of other candidates.

Many Iran experts regard Rafsanjani as a pragmatic conservative with more power and influence to build bridges to the West than reformist outgoing president Mohammad Khatami.

In response to a question, Rafsanjani said relations with the United States would be a major issue.

"There is no doubt that America is a superpower of the world and we cannot ignore them,'' Rafsanjani said at his office in a marble and mosaic palace used by the Shah of Iran until the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The United States broke diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980 after the seizure of American hostages at the U.S. embassy. President Bush in 2002 branded the country part of an ``axis of evil'' with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.


Rafsanjani said his aim as president would be to turn the United States away from what he called adventurism in the Middle East but the first move with Iran had to come from Washington.

"I think that Americans should gradually begin to adopt positive behavior rather than doing evil. They should not expect an immediate reaction in return for their positive measures. It will take time.

"Over time, when Iranians witness America's positive measures, then they will feel that America has given up its hostile policies,'' Rafsanjani said.

Unblocking around billion of Iranian assets frozen by the United States would be one way of showing Washington was serious, he added.

Asked why Tehran could not extend the olive branch, he said:

"We have never pioneered enmities. When our people have this feeling of being oppressed by America, taking a positive step by the oppressed side would indicate that we are weak or might be considered as a display of fear.'' ...

"One of my motivations to run, was to use my familiarity with the international diplomatic atmosphere to solve this problem,'' Rafsanjani said.

"I believe the main solution is to gain the trust of Europe and America and to remove their concerns over the peaceful nature of our nuclear industry and to assure them that there will never be a diversion'' to military use.

Since finishing his second term as president, Rafsanjani has headed the Expediency Council, a powerful arbitration body with legislative powers, and has influenced policy on everything from privatisation to the nuclear talks.

Most Iranians already see him as the most powerful figure in the country after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Rafsanjani said he would work to offer more education, jobs and social opportunity for Iran's predominantly young population, which has grown disillusioned with strict clerical rule and disappointed at Khatami's failure to deliver reforms.

"We should live based on Islamic laws and not based on radical individuals' interpretations which sometimes make people's lives difficult,'' he said.