By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 5, 2009
TEHRAN, March 4 -- Iranian leaders said Wednesday that President Obama follows the "crooked ways" of his predecessor, repeated earlier warnings that Iranian missiles could reach Israel and reiterated that the Holocaust was "a lie."
Iran's president and other officials have at times appeared to welcome Obama's proposal for greater dialogue, but the remarks Wednesday suggested that Iranian positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues would pose obstacles. The comments were also a reminder that Iran's complex leadership structure brings together clerics and political leaders with views that sometimes differ sharply.
In his first public comments on the new U.S. administration, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is Iran's supreme leader and has the final say over foreign policy, said Obama had adopted former president George W. Bush's support for Israel, which Khamenei called a "cancerous tumor."
"Even the new American president, who came to office with the slogan of bringing change in the policies of the Bush administration, avows unconditional commitment to Israel's security," Khamenei told representatives of pro-Palestinian groups at a conference in Tehran. "This commitment to Israel's security means the defense of state terrorism, injustice, oppression and a 22-day-long massacre of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children," he said.
Khamenei was referring to Israel's recent assault on Hamas, the Iranian-backed Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip and rejects Israel's existence. About 1300 Palestinians, among them hundreds of civilians, and 13 Israelis, including three civilians, were killed during fighting in December and January.
Khamenei criticized Palestinian leaders who have sought a negotiated settlement with Israel, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "By now, those who advocated a 'pragmatic' approach under the illusion of the invincibility of the Zionist regime, and who succumbed to surrender and compromise with the usurpers, should have realized their mistakes," Khamenei said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, while briefing reporters traveling from the Middle East to Brussels, said Khamenei's comments about Abbas "were a clear interference in the internal affairs of the Palestinian people." She added: "There is a great deal of concern about Iran in the entire region."
Iranian leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have repeatedly said that they are ready for "real" talks with the Obama administration but that they first want to see a significant change in U.S. policies.
"That the Obama administration wants to think all this through and take its time is a positive sign," Seyed Mohammad Marandi, head of the North American studies department at the University of Tehran, said in a recent interview. But he added that Iranian leaders need to see "change from them on several issues."
Iranian politicians seek U.S. recognition of their country's cleric-led system of government and its development of nuclear power, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes but which the United States, Israel and other nations worry is part of a weapons program. Iranians have also demanded that the United States apologize for orchestrating the 1953 overthrow of President Mohammed Mossadegh and for the 1988 downing of an Iran Air passenger jet, with 290 people aboard, by an American warship. U.S. officials said at the time that the airliner was shot down inadvertently and apologized.
"At this point, there is no need for Iran to compromise," Marandi said. "Let's face it, [Americans] are in a poor position. Their economy has run aground, they have no need for more instability in the region. They need us more than we need them."
On Wednesday, Khamenei made clear that Iran's support for "resistance movements" such as Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah is unequivocal; the United States has designated both as terrorist organizations. Iranian politicians and analysts say that their country's backing of Palestinian groups parallels U.S. political, financial and military support for Israel.
The United States and European nations favor a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Khamenei said a "democratic referendum" was the path to a resolution.
"All those who have a legitimate stake in the territory of Palestine, including Muslims, Christians and Jews, could choose their own system of government in a general referendum," Khamenei said.
Ahmadinejad, also speaking to the conference of pro-Palestinian groups, repeated his assertion that the Holocaust is a "big lie." Earlier statements of this kind have drawn international criticism and caused Israeli leaders to worry that Iran seeks Israel's destruction.
"The Holocaust story -- people without a country, country without a people -- and portraying Zionists as wronged and oppressed are among the great lies of our age and the prelude to crimes and occupation," Ahmadinejad said.
The commander in chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, told reporters at the conference that "the nuclear facilities in different parts of the land under the occupation of the Zionist regime are in the reach of Iran's missile defenses," according to the semiofficial Iranian Students' News Agency.
Iran has long said that its missiles are capable of reaching Israel, but Jafari's mention of possible targets was unusual.
Western missile experts say Tehran's most advanced ballistic missile, the Shahab-3, has a range of about 900 miles and would be capable of hitting targets in Israel. The Shahab-3 was built with North Korean help, and Iran has sought to make improvements in recent years, including a solid-fuel engine that offers greater stability.
Iran likes to show off its advanced missiles because "it plays to the crowd -- it's a macho thing," said a senior Israeli official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not cleared to discuss such matters publicly. But the official said Iran would be unlikely to use its missiles in an attack because of the certainty of retaliation.
Staff writers Glenn Kessler, traveling with Clinton, and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.