Iran’s supreme leader voiced support Wednesday for the negotiations over his country’s nuclear program, but insisted there are limits to the concessions Iran will make in exchange for an easing of the sanctions choking its economy.
Speaking to a paramilitary group in Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei aimed to placate hardliners and show his backing for the Iranian officials preparing to meet with international negotiators.
He had harsh words for almost every nation involved in the talks.
The United States “considered itself superior to mankind,” while Israel was led by people unworthy of the “title human.” It was also “the rabid dog” of the region, bent on besmirching Iran’s reputation.
France was guilty of “kneeling” before Israel, he went on, a reference to the fact French calls for a tougher deal reportedly caused the failure to reach agreement at the last round of talks.
Despite the fiery rhetoric, it was noted the supreme leader balanced his ritual attack on the U.S. by saying Iran wanted “friendly relations with all nations — even the United States”.
There were angry reactions from Paris.
François Hollande, the French president said the comments were “unacceptable” and only complicated the two days of nuclear talks scheduled to start in Geneva later Wednesday, said his spokeswoman, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.
But despite France’s displeasure over Mr. Khamenei’s criticism of Israel, Mr. Hollande still hopes for a deal and his position has not changed, she added.
In Washington, a senior Obama administration official said striking a deal with Iran would be “very hard.”
It was impossible to predict with confidence the hoped-for “first step” agreement, designed to freeze Iran’s nuclear program in return for a limited easing of sanctions, would result from the meeting, the official said.
If it was easy to do, it would have been done a long time ago
“We will have to see because it is hard. It is very hard … If it was easy to do, it would have been done a long time ago.”
For his part, Benjamin Netahyahu, the Israeli prime minister, flew to Moscow in search of an ally that would help toughen the terms of any agreement.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, began the day by meeting Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. She chairs the “P5 plus 1″ — the five permanent members of the Security Council, the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China, along with Germany — which is negotiating with Iran.
Western diplomats reported progress during a previous round of talks in Geneva. They now hope to reach an accord that would halt Iran’s nuclear efforts while negotiators pursue a more comprehensive agreement that would ensure that Tehran’s nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes.
Iran would get some sanctions relief under such a first-step deal, without any easing of the most harsh measures — those crippling Iran’s ability to sell oil, its main revenue maker.
Go and repair your devastated economy
Tehran has suggested it could curb its highest-known level of uranium enrichment — at 20% — in a possible deal that could ease the U.S.-led economic sanctions.
But Iranian leaders have made clear their country will not consider giving up its ability to make nuclear fuel.
In his speech, Ayatollah Khamenei emphasized the main goal of the talks is the “stabilization of the rights of the Iranian nation, including nuclear rights.”
“There are red lines. There are limits. These limits must be observed,” he told the Basij force, which is controlled by Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard.
“We have told the authorities, and they are required to observe the limits and should not fear the blusters of the enemies and opponents.”
He also blasted what he called the U.S. government’s “warmongering” policies, including threats of military action, and said sanctions cannot force unwanted concessions by Iran.
“Instead of using threats, go and repair your devastated economy so that your government is not shut down for 15 or 16 days,” he said. “Go and pay your debts.”