Iran candidate backs nuclear talks with the West

TEHRAN Fri May 29, 2009 5:45am EDT

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's leading moderate candidate Mirhossein Mousavi said on Friday he would continue talks with major powers on his country's disputed nuclear activities if he won the June presidential vote.

Mousavi's remarks contradicted hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his main challenger in the June 12 race, who on Monday ruled out any nuclear talks with the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain.

"If elected as Iran's president, I will continue nuclear talks with the P5+1 group," Mousavi told a news conference, where he was asked about Ahmadinejad's rejection of such talks.

The P5+1 countries said in April they would invite Iran to a meeting to try to find a diplomatic solution to the row.

Hoping to win votes from reformers and conservatives, the former prime minister derides Ahmadinejad's foreign policy, saying he will adopt a conciliatory policy toward the West unlike his "extremist" rival, who seeks a re-election in June.

Prime minister during Iran's 1980-88 war with Iraq, Mousavi is backed by many moderates like former president Mohammad Khatami and some conservatives in the contest.

The United States and its European allies accuse Iran of covertly developing atomic weapons. Iran, the world's fifth- largest oil exporter, says it only wants nuclear power to generate electricity to meet its booming domestic demand.

A senior Western diplomat told Reuters on Friday that Ahmadinejad's comments have disappointed the major powers, which are trying to engage Iran diplomatically to end the standoff.

"We want to see a positive sign from Iran and rejecting nuclear talks altogether is not a positive sign at all," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.

"NOT A TABOO"

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama set a rough timetable for his diplomatic outreach to Tehran for the first time, saying he wanted to see serious progress by the end of the year.

Iran says it is ready for "constructive" talks but has repeatedly rejected demands to halt sensitive uranium enrichment which can have both civilian and military purposes.

Like Ahmadinejad, Mousavi said Iran will not halt its nuclear work, but suggested he would do more to assure the West it is not for bomb-making.

"We will not abandon our right to nuclear technology but we are ready to give assurances that it is not aimed at building arms," Mousavi said.

Obama has offered a new U.S. approach to Iran, which has not had relations with Washington for three decades, saying he would extend a hand of peace if Iran would "unclench its fist."

While stressing his belief in preserving Iran's national interests, Mousavi said the Islamic state should be ready for talks with the United States if Washington showed real policy change toward Iran rather than words.

"Holding talks with America is not a taboo for me. If America practically changes its Iran policy then we will surely hold talks with them," Mousavi said.

U.S.-Iranian tensions have worsened since the 2005 election of Ahmadinejad, but he still rallies Iran's poor with his charisma and promises of state handouts. However, analysts say Mousavi's chances of winning the election are increasing.

"As we get closer to the election day, polls show that Mousavi is ahead in major cities," said Mahmoud Ranjbar, a political science teacher at the Shahid Beheshti university.

"This election is a competition between rural and urban areas." Surveys usually are not reliable in Iran.

Analysts say the fate of the race could depend on whether Ahmadinejad retains the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last say in all matters of state and whose words could influence millions of loyalists.

Khamenei, who also decides on crucial policies such as any move to renew U.S. ties and on Iran's nuclear row, has publicly praised Ahmadinejad.

(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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