December 18, 2010 / 2:34 PM / 8 years ago

Iran's new foreign minister reaches out to Europe

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s caretaker foreign minister, in a break with Tehran’s usually hostile rhetoric toward the West, called on Saturday for “positive interaction” with the European Union.

Chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali-Akbar Salehi makes a speech during the 54th International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference at the UN headquarters in Vienna September 20, 2010. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

Ali Akbar Salehi also talked of the need for cooperation with Saudi Arabia — whose worries about Iran’s nuclear program were highlighted in a U.S. cable released by the WikiLeaks website last month.

“Iran and Saudi Arabia are two influential countries of the region and the Islamic world and, cooperating together, they can solve problems of the region,” he said in his inaugural address.

He did not mention relations with the United States, often referred to in Iran as the “Great Satan,” nor did he talk about Israel, a country it refuses to recognize.

But he appeared to offer an olive branch to the 27-nation European Union, which infuriated the Islamic Republic earlier this year by imposing new sanctions over its nuclear program.

“Despite the EU’s illogical, unprincipled and unjust behavior, EU members are still seeking agreeable relations with Iran for a number of reasons including the energy issue,” Salehi said, according to state broadcaster IRIB.

“If the EU speedily transforms its confrontational style into positive interaction it would be in the interests of both parties.”

Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, was appointed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to replace Manouchehr Mottaki whom he sacked unexpectedly on Monday.

Analysts said the move showed Ahmadinejad’s dominance over rival hardline factions in government but expected little policy change from Tehran which insists sanctions will not force it to halt the nuclear activities it says are entirely peaceful.

Salehi can remain foreign minister in a caretaker position for three months without the approval of parliament which would be needed to give him the post permanently.

The U.S.-educated nuclear scientist used his address, at a low-key ceremony, to send friendly signals to many countries with which Tehran has had bumpy relations in recent months.

“At an international level, for many reasons, China and Russia also enjoy a special place, and relations with those two countries require special political attention,” he said.

Moscow and Beijing disappointed Tehran by backing Washington’s push for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions in June.

Russia further angered Iran by refusing to complete an order for a missile defense system which could help fend off air strikes which the United States and Israel have said they could unleash to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons.

In a secret U.S. cable released by WikiLeaks, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is reported to have encouraged Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are rivals for influence across the region.

Writing by Robin Pomeroy; editing by Myra MacDonald

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