TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran said Monday it had freed 80 prisoners arrested in political crackdowns, offering another potential diplomatic boost for the country's new president and his outreach to the West at this week's U.N. gathering.
The announcement of the mass release came just hours after Hasan Rouhani departed for New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly, where he is expected to seek Western pledges to restart stalled negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said Monday that Iran's new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is accompanying Rouhani, will join a preliminary round of talks with the six key nations dealing with Tehran over the issue.
The freeing of the prisoners appeared to reinforce the impression that Rouhani has support from the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to explore a broad rapprochement with the West, which has condemned Iran's crackdowns on the opposition.
Before leaving, Rouhani urged Western leaders to heed his appeals for greater dialogue and take steps to ease economic sanctions on Iran as a path to "reach joint interests." Rouhani has repeatedly appealed to the U.S. and allies to roll back sanctions to move ahead negotiations.
The official IRNA news agency said Khamenei agreed to a request from the judiciary to release the opposition supporters and others jailed on security charges. Khamenei has apparently backed Rouhani's attempts to repair ties with the West and possibly open groundbreaking dialogue with Washington.
Last week, Iran released a dozen prominent political prisoners, including a human rights lawyer. But the two most senior opposition leaders remain under house arrest.
Rouhani was quoted by IRNA as saying the West should choose the "path of interaction, talks and leniency, so we can reach joint interests." He also called sanctions "unacceptable and illegal" and a roadblock to progress on settling the nuclear impasse.
The West suspects Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge, saying its nuclear activities have aimed at peaceful purposes like power generation and cancer treatment.
Rouhani's U.N. visit has raised speculation on a possible breakthrough in relations with the United States, which broke ties with Tehran after the storming of the U.S. Embassy in late 1979.
But some Iranian conservatives are questioning the outreach. A commentary Monday in the hard-line Kayhan newspaper warned that shaking hands with President Barack Obama would be a "big mistake" and would represent a concession to Washington without any direct benefit for Iran.
Kayhan called Obama a "war criminal" for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and its bases in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region.
The uncompromising tone suggests rifts at Iran's highest levels. Kayhan typically reflects the views of hard-liners close to Khamenei.
Rouhani and Obama are scheduled to address the U.N. on Tuesday.
Also Monday, Russian technicians officially handed over control of the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran's Persian Gulf coast. Iranian state TV said Iranian teams had effectively run the facility before the formal transfer.
For the next two years, some Russian technicians will serve in advisory roles at the reactor.