By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Years before he became Iran's president-elect, Hassan Rohani spoke approvingly about concealing his nation's nuclear program and said that when Pakistan got atomic bombs and Brazil began enriching uranium, "the world started to work with them."
The comments offer an intriguing window into the past thinking of Rohani, widely seen as a moderate or pragmatic conservative, whose surprise victory in weekend elections to succeed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was perceived by the United States and other Western powers as positive - at least at first glance.
Rohani has said he intends to pursue constructive interaction with the world and "more active" negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, after his predecessor's belligerence was met with painful international sanctions and military threats from Israel and the United States.
Western powers suspect Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, allegations Tehran denies.
Ultimate decisions on Iran's nuclear program will remain in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Western diplomats familiar with Rohani's work as chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005 told Reuters the 64-year-old cleric was no pushover and had always been firmly committed to Iran's nuclear program.
He was secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2005. It was in the autumn of 2004 that Rohani gave a sweeping speech to Iran's Supreme Cultural Revolution Council called "Beyond the Challenges Facing Iran and the IAEA Concerning the Nuclear Dossier."
In that speech, that is available on the blog Armscontrolwonk.com, Rohani said Iran did not want nuclear weapons.
"As for building the atomic bomb, we never wanted to move in that direction and we have not yet completely developed our fuel cycle capability. This also happens to be our main problem."
But he argued in favor of a kind of nuclear fait accompli to force the West to accept Iran's enrichment capabilities. He also referred to Pakistan's successful acquisition of nuclear weapons in a positive light.
"If one day we are able to complete the (nuclear) fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice, that we do possess the technology, then the situation will be different," Rohani said.
"The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle," he said. "But Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold."
Rohani also discussed the decision by Iran to conceal its nuclear activities in the late 1980s and 1990s, when it relied on an illicit nuclear procurement network connected to the father of Pakistan's atomic weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, to purchase enrichment centrifuge technology.
"This (concealment) was the intention," Rohani said. "This never was supposed to be in the open. But in any case, the spies exposed it. We did not want to declare all this."
He said that in retrospect, it might have been a better idea not to hide the nuclear activities and that if Iran had disclosed them from the beginning, "we would not have any problems now, or our problems would have been far less than they are today."
In a paper published in 2006 by Brandeis University, Middle East analyst Chen Kane said Rohani's speech was likely motivated by a desire to justify Tehran's decision to cooperate with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.
In 2003, the IAEA launched an investigation into Iran's nuclear program after it came to light that Iran had hidden its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and other nuclear facilities.
Rohani, who in later years criticized Ahmadinejad for his confrontational approach to the nuclear issue, spoke in 2004 in favor of a quiet and calculating strategy with the West. He recommended accepting an enrichment freeze as negotiated with Britain, France and Germany - the "EU3" - and ending it at some point.
"I think we should not be in a great rush to deal with this issue," he said. "We should be patient and find the most suitable time to do away with the suspension."
"If we decide to start enrichment in the face of opposition by the West, we must find the best time and the most favorable conditions, and if we decide to work with the West, we must utilize all our capabilities and everything that is in our power to achieve our objectives," he said. "We should not rush into this. We must move very carefully, in a very calculated manner."
In a 2006 speech quoted in Kane's article, Rohani described Ahmadinejad's move in that same year to begin enriching uranium against the wishes of Western powers as "some success," but noted that that "we have been forced to pay a hefty price."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)