TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's president defended an interim nuclear deal that eases some of the international community's crippling economic sanctions in return for a freeze on part of the Islamic Republic's uranium enrichment activities, saying Saturday that improving the economy is as important as maintaining a peaceful nuclear program.
Since Iran signed the interim agreement last month with world powers, President Hassan Rouhani has been trying to convince skeptics and hard-liners at home that Iran is not compromising on key issues of national sovereignty. It's a task that will become all the more difficult for the moderate leader as Tehran moves toward a final accord six months from now.
"Nuclear technology and uranium enrichment is our definite right," Rouhani said in a speech to university students that was broadcast live on state TV. "But progress, better living conditions and welfare for the people is also our definite right. Breaking and dismantling the architecture of the ominous and oppressive sanctions is also our definite right."
A strict sanction regime leveled by Western powers on Iran over its disputed nuclear program has taken an immense toll on the nation's economy, and Rouhani was elected in a landslide earlier this year with the expectation that he would quickly fix the economic malaise. At times, he has tried to frame the debate over the nuclear deal in economic terms, stressing the boost it would give to the economy.
"Centrifuges should spin. But the life of people and the economy also need to spin," he added. "Without economic might, our national might won't be enhanced."
Economists blamed Iran's economic malaise on a combination of sanctions and mismanagement under Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Rouhani has vowed to revive the economy through better management at home and constructive interaction with the outside world.
His speech was interrupted by chants of "moderation, reforms" from supporters and "Death to America" from hard-line students who attended the speech. Rouhani paused for seconds when supporters called for the release of opposition leaders while opponents demanded their execution.
"We need domestic unanimity and consensus to reach our goals. So, we should increase our tolerance," Rouhani said with a smile. "If we can't resolve a domestic issue through rationality and unanimity, how can we resolve the complicated regional and global issues?"
The six-month interim nuclear deal includes greater access for U.N. inspectors to Iran's nuclear facilities, a cap on the level of uranium enrichment in return for a halt to new sanctions and an easing of the existing sanctions.
Hardliners have called the deal a "poisoned chalice" and an agreement that "practically tramples on Iran's enrichment rights."
Under the deal, Iran has agreed to halt its 20 percent enrichment program, which is just steps away from bomb-making materials, but will continue enrichment up to 5 percent. It also will convert half of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to oxide and dilutue the remaining half to 5 percent.
"You saw what countries got angry with the deal and you saw what a blow was inflicted on the Zionists," he said, employing the term Iranian leaders use to refer to Israelis. "In the first 100 days of office, we resolved one of knots of the past 10 years and took steps toward constructive interaction with the world to the benefits of the nation."
Israel has repeatedly criticized the deal and called it a "historic mistake", saying economic sanctions must be toughened, not eased.
Iran also struck a separate agreement last month with the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow expanded U.N. monitoring at the country's nuclear sites. As part of that deal, Iran invited inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog to visit the heavy water production plant in the central city of Arak on Dec. 8.
Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency said Saturday that two IAEA inspectors arrived in Tehran to visit the Arak facility Sunday.
The invitation shows Tehran is starting to comply with separate commitments to open previously off-limits sites to IAEA inspectors.
The status of the Arak plant had been one of the major issues during negotiations leading to last month's agreement with the world powers in Geneva.