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TEHRAN, Iran - President-elect Hassan Rowhani struck a markedly conciliatory tone Monday, and held out the prospect of improved relations with the United States.

When asked by NBC News what he thought of the American congratulations to him and the Iranian people, as well as an offer to hold direct talks with Iran, Rowhani smiled and answered that the question was complicated.

"Iran and America's relationship was like a wound that has not healed; we must not look back but forward," the moderate cleric who scored a surprise victory over the weekend said at his first news conference.

The United States and Iran should "look to the future," he told journalists gathered in the packed auditorium in an affluent north Tehran suburb. His press team did not restrict questions from journalists.

Rowhani repeated past statements from Iran's leadership that one-on-one talks with the United States would only be possible if Washington vowed to "never interfere in Iranian affairs."

When Rowhani was chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, he negotiated a suspension of Tehran's uranium enrichment. He has said Iran would not halt those activities again.

He also insisted that Washington and the West must recognize what he said was Iran's right to enrich uranium.

Western countries maintain that Tehran's nuclear program is a cover to one day develop an atomic bomb. Severe American and European financial and trade sanctions imposed because of the nuclear program have forced sharp cuts to Iran's oil exports and hurt the country's economy.

Rowhani, who is known by his nickname "the diplomatic sheik," is known for his good relations with people across the political spectrum. He is not thought to be at the heart of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's circle.

The man who will soon be Iran's second-most-powerful person after Khamenei touched on a number of other questions, including economy and how Iran was faring in World Cup soccer qualification matches.

Rowhani sidestepped the issue of Iran's close ties with Syria's Bashar Assad. Iran is one of the regime's closest allies.

He said that the greatest effort to end the Syrian civil war lies in the hands of the Syrian people, which drew a round of applause from some Iranian journalists in the auditorium.

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