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Iran's president-elect quickly shows moderation has limits

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's newly elected president showcased his reform-leaning image Monday by promising a "path of moderation" that includes greater openness on Tehran's nuclear program and overtures to Washington. He also made clear where he draws the line: No halt to uranium enrichment and no direct U.S. dialogue without a pledge to stay out of Iranian affairs.

Hasan Rowhani's first post-victory news conference was a study in what may make his presidency tick.

Rowhani may be hailed as a force for change, but he also appears to carry a deep and self-protective streak of pragmatism. He knows he can only push his views on outreach and detente as far as allowed by the country's real powers: the ruling clerics and their military protectors, the Revolutionary Guard.

Many of Rowhani's statements reflected these boundaries, which could later expand or contract depending on how much the theocracy endorses his agenda.

When he appealed to treat "old wounds" with the United States, he also echoed the ruling clerics' position that no breakthroughs can occur as long as they see Washington as trying to undermine their hold on power. Rowhani's urging for greater "nuclear transparency" as a path to roll back sanctions was also punctuated by a hard-liner stance: No chance to stop the uranium enrichment labs at the heart of the stalemate with the West and its allies.

Rowhani spoke eloquently about a "new era" on the international stage but avoided direct mention of the sweeping crackdowns at home since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

At the end of the news conference, a spectator yelled out for the release of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest for more than two years. Rowhani smiled but made no comment. "You can make any kind of promises you want," said Merhzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle East Studies program at Syracuse University. "At the end of the day, it's the ruling clerics that decide whether they go anywhere."

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