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Obama sees Iran's election of moderate as hopeful sign

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Monday that Iran's election of a moderate as its next president is a sign that Iranians want to move in a different direction, but he was uncertain whether it would lead to a breakthrough over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

In an interview with public television anchor Charlie Rose, Obama said the United States and its allies would be willing to hold talks with Iran over its nuclear program, as long as Tehran recognized that international sanctions would not be lifted unless Iran proved it is not building a nuclear weapon.

"As long as there's an understanding about the basis of the conversation, then I think there's no reason why we shouldn't proceed," Obama said.

The surprise victory by Iran's Hassan Rohani in weekend elections to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president was seen by the United States as positive, at least at first glance.

"I think it says that the Iranian people want to move in a different direction," said Obama. "The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything any time anywhere. Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way."

Obama noted, however, that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains Iran's supreme leader "so we're going to have to continue to see how this develops and how this evolves over the next several weeks, months, years."

"I do think that there's a possibility that they decide - the Iranians decide - to take us up on our offer to engage in a more serious substantive way," he said.

The interview was taped on Sunday and broadcast on Monday on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

It touched on many of the international challenges Obama is facing, including the question of how to assist Syrian rebels militarily after Washington determined last week that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against the opposition.

Obama sounded skeptical about the idea of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, which his administration has been considering. He said it is possible that a no-fly zone "may not be actually solving the problem."

Whatever assistance the United States provides should be done carefully because "it is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments," he said.

Obama, who had face-to-face talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping this month in California, said he believes the Chinese recognize the U.S. desire for China to play a positive role on the world stage, but Beijing has yet to fully take on that responsibility.

The president engaged in a blunt conversation with Xi about cyber hacking and what American officials believe has been the theft of U.S. trade secrets by China.

"I think what you're seeing inside of (the) Chinese leadership is the desire to maybe continue not to be responsible, not to be a full stakeholder, work the international system on something like trade or intellectual property rights, get as much as they can, and be free-riders and let the United States worry about the big hassles and the big problems," Obama said.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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