By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 6:31 PM
TEHRAN - In a rare response to increasingly tough sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies, Iran's supreme leader said Tuesday that such measures appeared aimed at "creating a division" between the people and the leaders of the Islamic republic.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's remarks came as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was meeting in Tehran with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, part of a state visit in which the two leaders are expected to focus on boosting cooperation between their countries' oil, gas and petrochemical industries. The sanctions Iran faces include measures intended to prevent it from buying refined petroleum. Venezuela has said in the past that it might act as an intermediary for Iranian fuel purchases.
Khamenei said the "harshening" sanctions are aimed at increasing pressure on the Iranian people. He spoke in the city of Qom, Iran's main center of Shiite Islamic learning, at the start of a scheduled 10-day visit.
"Fortunately . . . it has been proved that in practice the sanctions have had no impact on the people's livelihood," Khamenei told worshipers gathered in a central square in Qom, about 80 miles south of Tehran.
Iranian lawmakers and businessmen, however, are complaining about rising prices and difficulties carrying out international financial transactions.
The trip to Qom, Khamenei's first official visit since 1995, is sensitive, given that some clerics have voiced disapproval of the government crackdown on protesters and the mass arrests of dissidents and activists that followed Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection last year.
Although Khamenei officially has the final say on all matters of religion and state in Iran, a group of nearly a dozen Shiite clerics wields considerable influence, with some of them boasting hundreds of thousands of followers.
A couple of those high-ranking clerics have criticized Ahmadinejad's government, which Khamenei strongly supports. One, Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei, serves as a religious leader for the grass-roots opposition movement. His house in Qom has been attacked several times by government supporters in past months.
Khamenei used his speech, delivered during what his Web site described as a "magnificent welcome," to ask for support for the government. "Solidarity . . . needs to be strengthened further day by day, specifically with the executive branch, which has multiple burdens on its shoulders," Khamenei said. His speech was broadcast live on state television.
In Tehran, Ahmadinejad and Chavez discussed "shared interests," state television reported. The Venezuelan leader, who is making his ninth visit to Iran, is scheduled to travel to Qom on Wednesday for a meeting with the supreme leader.
Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.