Iran's top clergy back President Rouhani's softer nuclear approach

DUBAI (REUTERS) - President Hassan Rouhani has secured the backing of senior conservative clerics against hardliners opposed to a nuclear deal reached with major powers, Iran's official news agency Irna said on Saturday.

His first vice-president, Mr Eshaq Jahangiri, visited clerics in the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Qom to explain the deal and seek their blessing over "complex foreign policy issues" ahead of talks next month on a long-term accord, Irna said.

An interim deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany was reached in November in Geneva, aimed at persuading Iran to curb parts of its nuclear work, in return for a limited easing of sanctions.

Hardline clerics close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Revolutionary Guards commanders and the intelligence services have attacked the temporary concessions Mr Rouhani has made, although Mr Khamenei has so far backed the president. Mr Khamenei has the final say on all state matters, including the nuclear issue.

The talks on Feb 18 will seek a comprehensive agreement defining the permissible scope of Iran's nuclear activity. Western powers fear the nuclear programme is aimed at creating atomic weapons capabilities. Iran denies this.

Irna said the response of from the clerics in Qom, in central Iran, was unanimously positive. Support from Qom, whose clerics traditionally have influence among core supporters of the establishment, is likely to boost Mr Rouhani's government's position in the next round of talks in Vienna, having already won over more reform-minded clerics.

The backing of the clergy is essential as they have direct access to ordinary Iranians in their sermons when they can mobilise people to display their support for the deal, under which Teheran seeks to end painful economic sanctions that have severely damaged its oil-dependent economy.

"This government has inspired hope in our society. Its way of communicating has put us in line with other cultures," said Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani, referring to Mr Rouhani's tone compared to his hardline predecessor, Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since his landslide election win.

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