New Iranian leader meets the press


TEHRAN, Iran - Iranian President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said yesterday that the Islamic Republic would move ahead with what he called its peaceful nuclear program and that the country "didn't necessarily need America" on its path to self-reliance.

In his first news conference since his lopsided runoff victory last week, the hard-line mayor of Tehran brushed off remarks by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who on Fox News Sunday called Iran's presidential election a "mock election" and referred to Ahmadinejad as "no friend of democracy."

"Everyone has a right to express their opinion," Ahmadinejad said, "but the world will judge them based on the fairness and accuracy of their remarks."

The ultraconservative populist, whose election puts all branches of Iran's government in the control of hard-liners, said his administration would be one of peace and moderation, vowing that extremism would have no place there.

Ahmadinejad hit surprisingly liberal tones on issues as varied as freedom and student activists, and foreign investment and relations with other countries, but he showed a predilection for qualifying his comments.

When asked what guarantee he could give that the press would be free to criticize his government, Ahmadinejad said, "Criticism is a gift from God," adding, "We kiss the hands of all those who feel for this country and offer constructive criticism."

Similarly, when questioned about freedom, Ahmadinejad said, "Freedom is the soul of the Islamic revolution, and we seek maximum freedom," but he added: "Religious democracy is the only path that can bring our nation true happiness."

Seated against a backdrop showing Iran's highest mountain, the Damavand, and the words "the 70 million Cabinet" - alluding to the populist nature of his government - Ahmadinejad began his news conference by smiling and waving to photographers. He had refused to do so in his first encounter with an onslaught of reporters on Election Day, saying, "A president's hands aren't there to wave, they are there to work."

Clearly more comfortable in his new clothes as Iran's new executive chief, Ahmadinejad said in the nationally televised conference that it was the right of the Iranian nation to progress in all fields. He said Iran would continue negotiations on its nuclear program with the Europeans but "confidence-building measures have to be reciprocal."

Western governments have fallen short of extending their congratulations to the new Iranian president, although state television said many neighboring countries sent their best wishes yesterday.

The European Union has reacted nervously to the new president amid widespread analyses by Western and Iranian observers that Ahmadinejad would be less open than his reform-minded predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, to talks and negotiations.

The European commissioner for justice and security issues, Franco Frattini, told Italy's La Repubblica yesterday that the European Union would "have no choice but to freeze dialogue with Iran" if Ahmadinejad's comments on human rights and the nuclear issue were negative.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said in his weekly news conference yesterday that "Iran's foreign policy based on the principle of nonaggression and confidence-building is part of the state's overall guidelines" and that it would not change with a new presidency.

"I think the Europeans should have confidence and respectfully extend their congratulations as soon as possible," Asefi added.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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