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Iran's Khamenei rebuffs Obama overture

Iran's supreme leader says Tehran seeks U.S. policy shifts, not merely 'changes in words.' The U.S., he says, could begin by lifting economic sanctions and retracting 'hostile propaganda.'

March 22, 2009|Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim

BEIRUT AND TEHRAN — Iran's most powerful figure dismissed President Obama's extraordinary Persian New Year greeting, insisting Saturday that the U.S. administration's actions must match its rhetoric before Tehran would alter its foreign policy, in an apparent attempt to keep the political establishment unified behind an anti-American posture.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is Iran's highest spiritual, military and political authority, told supporters in his hometown of Mashhad that "changes in words" would not be enough to convince Iran that the Obama administration was sincere in its outlook.

"We do not have any record of the new U.S. president," he said in a live television broadcast. "We are observing, watching and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago."

The crowd chanted, "God is great! Khamenei is the leader!"

As he spoke, Khamenei glanced cursorily at his notes, suggesting that his words were carefully considered. His remarks were the most detailed and authoritative response by any Iranian leader to several attempts by the Obama administration to reach out to the Islamic Republic.

The White House issued a 3 1/2 -minute video message from Obama early Friday morning greeting the Iranian people and officials on the occasion of the important holiday, acknowledging three decades of strained relations with America and offering a new beginning.

Iranian officials quickly responded by welcoming the address but voicing skepticism about its sincerity. On Saturday, Khamenei recited a list of grievances against the U.S. over the last three decades, including the 1988 downing of an Iranian civilian plane by a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf, the freezing of Iranian assets, and strong support for Israel and armed Iranian opposition groups.

"They are talking of extending a hand to Iran on the occasion of the New Year and they are congratulating the Iranian people," he said. "At the same time, they are accusing [Iran] of terrorism and the manufacturing of nuclear weapons."

Khamenei's quick, pointed response to Obama was unusual, and appeared to be an attempt to swiftly silence any voices within Tehran's divided political establishment that might be keen on responding genially to the New Year message.

Opposition to the U.S. and Israel remain a major pillar of the Islamic Republic's radical populist ideology. "Death to America" is a ubiquitous rallying cry, and opponents of the system are often tarnished by accusations of being American or Israeli dupes.

Obama's friendly tone, personal ties to the Muslim world and immense popularity throughout Iran and the Middle East pose a unique challenge for a government that describes the United States as an unjust power bent on destroying Islam.

Washington and Tehran went separate ways after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed monarch Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and established the Islamic Republic. That same year, radical Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held American employees hostage for 444 days.

Khamenei said that lifting economic sanctions and retracting "hostile propaganda" would be among the welcomed shifts in U.S. policies.

"For you to say that we will both talk to Iran and simultaneously exert pressure on her, both threats and appeasement, our nation hates this approach," he said.

Obama has said he is committed to improving America's image abroad after what most analysts consider a sullying of the U.S. reputation in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and abuses of detainees in the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay military prisons.

To improve America's standing abroad, Khamenei advised Obama to "avoid an arrogant tone, avoid arrogant behavior, avoid bullying behavior, do not interfere in nations' affairs, be contented with your own share, do not define interests extraterritorially all over the world."

He urged Obama to get his words translated, but suggested he not use "Zionist" translators, drawing laughter from the audience.

--

daragahi@latimes.com

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