Iran's Supreme Leader Rebuffs Obama Vow of Better Ties but Doesn't Rule Out Talks

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 22, 2009

TEHRAN, March 21 -- Iran's supreme leader on Saturday called President Obama's promise of better ties a "slogan" but said that if the United States changed its "attitude," Iran would do the same.

"They say, 'We have extended a hand toward Iran.' What kind of hand is this? If the extended hand is covered with a velvet glove but underneath it, the hand is made of cast iron, this does not have a good meaning at all," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a crowd of tens of thousands in the northeastern city of Mashad, state television reported.

Khamenei's comments were the first official reaction to a video greeting to Iran that Obama released Friday on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year.

In a three-minute speech made available on the Internet and sent to international broadcasters, Obama said the United States seeks engagement with Iran "that is honest and grounded in mutual respect" but cautioned that Iran cannot "take its rightful place in the community of nations through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization."

Khamenei referred to Obama's decision this month to renew trade sanctions against Iran on the basis that Iran continues to pose an "unusual and extraordinary threat" to U.S. national security.

"They are talking of extending a hand to Iran on the occasion of the new year and they are congratulating the Iranian people," Khamenei said. "At the same time, they are accusing Iran of terrorism and the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. We ask, have you lifted the unjust sanctions against the Iranian people and returned [Iranian] assets you hold? Have you retracted hostile propaganda against Iran?"

Iranian leaders have said that they are ready to start wide-ranging talks with the United States on such issues as Iran's nuclear program, its role as a regional power and sanctions, but that they first want to see "practical steps" and "real changes" from the United States.

Some Iranian politicians have suggested that the United States should apologize for organizing the ousting of Iran's democratically elected government in 1953 and other U.S. involvements in Iran. Others have demanded that the Obama administration review its ties with Israel, a country Iran does not recognize.

"To prove its credibility, the new U.S. administration must change its policies toward Iran and the region, and to end its arrogant approach toward other nations," Khamenei said. Still Khamenei, who lifted the political taboo on talking to the United States in certain situations three years ago, did not rule out talks.

"We have no experience of this new president and administration," he said. "We will wait and see. If you change your attitude, we will change, too. If you do not change, then our nation will build on its experience of the past 30 years."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company