TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's new President Hasan Rouhani, a reputed moderate, was sworn in on Sunday, telling the West the only way to interact with the Islamic republic is through dialogue not sanctions.
The 64-year-old cleric takes over from hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose provocative policies in two turbulent four-year terms left Iran isolated internationally and struggling economically because of its controversial nuclear drive.
The West is hoping that Rouhani will take a more constructive approach in long-running nuclear talks.
"The only path to interact with Iran is through negotiations on equal grounds, reciprocal trust-building, mutual respect and reducing hostilities," Rouhani said in a speech after being sworn in before parliament.
"If you want a proper answer, do not speak with Iran with the language of sanctions but with the language of respect," he said, adding Iran would "not surrender to sanctions, nor be threatened with war."
He was referring to years of unsuccessful negotiations with the so-called P5+1 group of the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany over Iran's nuclear activities, which the world powers suspect is aimed at military objectives despite Iranian denials.
Rouhani stressed that his goal is to improve the lives of ordinary Iranians and to break down the isolation imposed on Iran through international sanctions which have dealt a heavy blow to its economy.
"The people voted for moderation. . . . The people want to live better, to have dignity and to enjoy a stable life. They want to regain their deserved position among nations," Rouhani said.
After the inaugural speech, Rouhani also presented parliament with his government line-up, mostly filled with technocrats seen as close to his mentor, pragmatic ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Rouhani formally took office on Saturday at another ceremony in which he received the endorsement of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pledging to work to ease the crippling Western sanctions.
"The trajectory of my government will be saving Iran's economy and constructive engagement with the world," he said in a speech on Saturday broadcast live on state television.
My government, "will take fundamental steps in elevating Iran's position based on national interest and lifting of the oppressive sanctions," he added.
Tough United States and European Union sanctions, slapped over and above U.N. sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, have crippled the country's once lucrative oil and banking sectors.
Over the past two years, the sanctions have sent inflation soaring to more than 45 percent, while the rial has lost nearly 70 percent of its value against the dollar amid double-digit unemployment.
In defiance of its international isolation, Iran for the first time invited top representatives of several countries, except for the United States, to attend the swearing-in ceremony.
Nine regional leaders attended, including the prime minister of close ally Syria, as well as former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who represented world powers in nuclear talks with Iran in the past.
But Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, failed to show up because Saudi Arabia denied permission for his plane to cross its airspace en route to Tehran.
Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim kingdom, has repeatedly voiced fears about the controversial nuclear program of Shiite-dominated Iran, whose warships twice docked in Sudan late last year.
Officially, Rouhani had two weeks from Sunday to name his cabinet, but he got to work immediately.
The first staff appointment was announced when he named Mohammad Nahavandian, a US Green Card residency holder and doctor in economics from George Washington University, to head the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
After taking the oath, Rouhani unveiled his proposed cabinet.
Among the key nominees were veteran retired diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif, tapped for the foreign ministry, and ex-oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, named to return to the same portfolio.
The conservative-dominated parliament has 10 days to review the nominations, before Khamenei's final approval, but Iranian media reports say MPs are expected to start voting within a week or less.
The first international reaction to Rouhani's swearing-in came Sunday from Israel, the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power, and archenemy of Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged that Rouhani shared his hardline predecessor's aim of destroying the Jewish state.
"The president of Iran may have been changed but the aims of the regime there have not," he said at the start of a weekly Cabinet meeting.
© AFP 2013