TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed overtures from President Barack Obama on Saturday, saying Tehran does not see any change in U.S. policy under its new administration.
Khamenei was responding to a video message Obama released Friday in which he reached out to Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year, and expressed hopes for an improvement in nearly 30 years of strained relations.
Khamenei holds the last word on major policy decisions, and how Iran ultimately responds to any concrete U.S. effort to engage the country will depend largely on his say.
Khamenei demands changes
In his most direct assessment of Obama and prospects for better ties, Khamenei said there will be no change between the two countries unless the American president puts an end to U.S. hostility toward Iran and brings "real changes" in foreign policy.
"They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice. We haven't seen any change," Khamenei said in a speech before a crowd of tens of thousands in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad.
In his video message, Obama said the United States wants to engage Iran, but he also warned that a right place for Iran in the international community "cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization."
Khamenei asked how Obama could congratulate Iranians on the new year and accuse the country of supporting terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons in the same message.
Khamenei said there has been no change even in Obama's language compared to that of his predecessor.
"He (Obama) insulted the Islamic Republic of Iran from the first day. If you are right that change has come, where is that change? What is the sign of that change? Make it clear for us what has changed."
Still, Khamenei left the door open to better ties with America, saying "should you change, our behavior will change too."
Diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran were cut after the U.S. Embassy hostage-taking after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the pro-U.S. shah and brought to power a government of Islamic clerics.
The United States cooperated with Iran in late 2001 and 2002 in the Afghanistan conflict, but the promising contacts fizzled — and were extinguished completely when Bush branded Tehran part of the "Axis of Evil."
Khamenei enumerated a long list of Iranian grievances against the United States over the past 30 years and said the United States was still interfering in Iranian affairs.
He mentioned U.S. sanctions against Iran, U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during his 1980-88 war against Iran and the downing of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988.
He also accused the United States of provoking ethnic tension in Iran and said Washington's accusations that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons are a sign of U.S. hostility. Iran says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, like energy production, not for building weapons.
"Have you released Iranian assets? Have you lifted oppressive sanctions? Have you given up mudslinging and making accusations against the great Iranian nation and its officials? Have you given up your unconditional support for the Zionist regime? Even the language remains unchanged," Khamenei said.
Khamenei, wearing a black turban and dark robes, said America was hated around the world for its arrogance, as the crowd chanted "Death to America."
Obama has signaled a willingness to speak directly with Iran about its nuclear program and hostility toward Israel, a key U.S. ally. At his inauguration last month, the president said his administration would reach out to rival states, declaring "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
"They say we have stretched a hand toward Iran. ... If a hand is stretched covered with a velvet glove but it is cast iron inside, that makes no sense," he said.
Khamenei said sanctions only served to make Iran self-reliant. Iran frequently boasts of achievements in various technological fields, including uranium enrichment, space technology, missiles and passenger and fighter plane production, despite sanctions.
"Sanctions benefited us. We have to thank the Americans in this sector. If sanctions had not been imposed, we would have not reached the point of progress and technology we are in now," he said.
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