U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton swiped at Iran on Wednesday, accusing its hardline leaders of fomenting divisions in the Arab world, promoting terrorism, posing threats to Israel and Europe, and seeking to "intimidate as far as they think their voice can reach."
Her remarks, at the conclusion of two days of talks in Egypt, Israel and the West Bank, were notable for coming from an Obama administration that has raised the prospect of diplomatic engagement with Iran as part of a new direction in U.S. foreign policy.
In remarks to reporters aboard her plane en route from Ramallah to Brussels, Belgium, Clinton said that in her talks with Arab foreign ministers and other leaders she heard "over and over and over again" a deep-seated worry about threats posed by the Iranians.
"It is clear that Iran intends to interfere with the internal affairs of all of these people and try to continue their efforts to fund terrorism, whether it's Hezbollah or Hamas or other proxies," she said.
In Tehran on Wednesday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused President Barack Obama of following the same mistaken path as the Bush administration with his "unconditional" support of Israel. Khamenei also called Israel a "cancerous tumor" that is on the verge of collapse. He said Israeli leaders should be put on trial for its military offensive in Gaza, which ended with a shaky cease-fire in mid-January.
The comments from Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, underscored the difficulties Obama faces as he seeks to improve relations with Iran given the deep disagreements on both sides on issues like Israel and Iran's nuclear program.
Khamenei said Obama spoke of change during his campaign but supported Israel's devastating three-week offensive against the Gaza Strip earlier this year that killed some 1,300 Palestinians.
"This means the same wrong path as the Bush administration and nothing less," he said.
Obama still ready for talks
In an interview, Clinton reiterated that Obama stands ready to engage in talks with Iran, with whom Washington severed diplomatic relations after Iran's Islamic revolution three decades ago. "But we want to make sure it's constructive," she said.
The main source of friction is Iran's nuclear program, which the United States and many in the international community believe is intended to produce weapons.
The Iranians insist their program is designed solely for civilian energy production. The U.S. also is critical of Iran's efforts to spread its influence across the greater Middle East by supporting the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The U.S. also has been critical of Iran's support of Shiite extremists in Iraq.
Obama has said his administration is looking for opportunities to engage Iran to help reduce tensions between the two countries that increased during Bush's time in office.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Iran would welcome talks with the U.S. — but only if there was mutual respect. Iranian officials have said that means the U.S. needs to stop accusing Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism, charges Tehran has denied.
On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad urged the United States to change its "satanic" ways if it is serious about wanting change.
"Change means giving up your satanic, coercive and aggressive ways and instead adopting more human morals. ... If you accept this invitation, it will be to the benefit of yourself and your nation," Ahmadinejad told a crowd in northwestern Iran. He did not mention Obama by name but was referring to the new president's administration.
Those demands could help explain why Clinton said Tuesday in a visit to Jerusalem that Obama's attempts to reach out to Iran have so far been unsuccessful. She reassured her Israeli hosts that U.S. diplomacy should not be confused with softness, saying Washington remained committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and funding terrorism.
Iran does not recognize Israel and has called for its destruction. Khamenei called Israel a "cancerous tumor" Wednesday that is on the verge of collapse.