A leading candidate in Iran's June 14 presidential election has sought to reassure world powers that Tehran's controversial nuclear programme is peaceful, in an exclusive interview with AFP.
Ali Akbar Velayati, 67, foreign minister from 1981 to 1997,reiterated Iran's long-stated position that it is not seeking nuclear arms, arguing that they are "forbidden" under a much-debated religious decree by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"We have announced repeatedly that we are against developing nuclear bombs," Velayati said, speaking after a rally in Tehran on Monday.
He is one of eight candidates approved by the hardline electoral watchdog Guardians Council seeking to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran's nuclear programme has long been a point of contention between the Islamic republic and the so-called P5+1 countries -- the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany.
Suspicions of hidden military objectives in the Iranian programme have led to several rounds of international sanctions against Tehran, in particular targeting vital oil income and access to the global banking system, sparking a serious economic crisis.
All decisions on Iran's nuclear activities rest with Khamenei who has so far barred direct talks with the United States on the sidelines of the world powers negotiations.
The West has failed to convince Iran to cut its nuclear drive in years of negotiations, and in parallel efforts by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency to shed some light on Iran's past activities.
Speaking in English, the US-educated paediatrician said: "We have tried to respond to all the questions they have raised in more than 10 years. But a new question is raised every time we answer to the previous ones."
"This is a vicious cycle that we have to get rid of," he added, insisting on Iran's "right to use peaceful atomic energy."
To allay international concerns, however, Velayati said he would involve more international players in the long-stalled talks as well as hold bilateral discussions "with the P5+1 members."
"But that does not mean that we have to talk with all of them," he said.
On Sunday, French President Francois Hollande echoed Western concerns about the Iranian nuclear drive, saying there was an "urgent and imperative need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons."
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Dismissing the remarks, Velayati said Khamenei "will guide us strategically" through the process of solving the nuclear issue, explaining that his duty should he be elected president would mean finding the best way of doing that.
The method, however, "should be approved by our supreme leader."
"I will exactly follow his directives," Velayati said, boasting that the "relative success" of Iran's foreign policy under his direction from 1981 to 1997, was possible due to his "close cooperation" with Khamenei, and with the late father of Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Iranian support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has exacerbated already-tense relations with world powers.
Tehran has stood behind Assad as he battles rebels seeking to topple his regime in a conflict that has killed 94,000 people since March 2011.
But Velayati said his administration would be ready to "cooperate" with other countries, including France, in order to bridge differences on Syria.
Along with other Western and Arab countries, France says Tehran is sending weapons and military forces to assist the Assad regime.
"My offer, if I am victorious, is that Iran and France sit together to talk, and work together, to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis," Velayati said.
However, Paris has accused Iran of not seeking a "political solution" for Syria, and has expressed reservations over a role for Tehran in next month's planned peace conference in Geneva.
The conference aims to end the conflict by bringing together representatives from the Syrian regime and rebels to find a political solution.
Iran said last month it was willing to attend the conference, originally scheduled for June, arguing all influential parties must be included in the process to ensure its success.
Velayati said the meeting presented "an opportunity," and repeated that Iran supports a "political and not a military solution" to the conflict.
Asked about Iran's stance should Geneva lead to progress, he said Iran would "not make a decision on behalf of the Syrian government. If they accept (the outcome of Geneva), we will support it."