Iran's Khamenei gives qualified support to opening to West

Iran's supreme leader on Saturday backed President Hassan Rouhani's overtures to the West but criticised some aspects of a UN visit during which he spoke with US counterpart Barack Obama.

Obama, meanwhile, said Iran was "a year or more away" from acquiring a nuclear bomb -- a claim Tehran vehemently denies -- indicating that Washington is operating on a different timetable than its ally Israel.

The comments from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields ultimate authority in Iran, were his first public response to Rouhani's opening to the West in New York last week that was capped by a historic 15-minute telephone conversation with Obama.

“We support the diplomatic initiative of the government and attach importance to its activities in this trip,” he told military commanders and graduating cadets in remarks carried by his website, Khamenei.ir.

However, Khamenei added that “some of what happened in the New York trip was not appropriate... although we trust in our officials.”

While he did not elaborate, analysts said it was directed at the September 27 telephone call -- the first direct conversation between presidents of the two countries since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Rouhani's visit to New York for the UN General Assembly came after Khamenei had given the government permission to show “heroic flexibility”, raising hopes of a breakthrough in long-stalled talks on Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

But conservative commentator Mehdi Fazayeli said the government had made a mistake in “cashing in too quickly its coupon” of direct contact with the US administration.

“If the call had achieved a valuable outcome, the leader would not have disapproved,” the Tehran-based Fazayeli told AFP.

However Saeed Leylaz, a pro-reform political analyst, said Khamenei's criticism should not overshadow the new softer tone in Iran's foreign policy, considering that “there are domestic politics in play as well.”

“Even if the supreme leader is critical, one should not forget that without his permission the diplomatic initiative would not have been put in action in the first place,” he told AFP.

Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state including foreign policy, has evinced little faith in a rapprochement with an enemy long derided as the “Great Satan.”

“We are pessimistic towards the Americans and do not put any trust in them. The American government is untrustworthy, supercilious and unreasonable, and breaks its promises,” Khamenei said.

General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, said Monday that Rouhani should have waited for US concessions before agreeing to the call with Obama.

Rouhani has pledged to take a more pragmatic approach to the international nuclear talks in a bid to win relief from crippling US and European sanctions on Iran's oil and banking sectors.

Representatives of Iran and the six powers are to meet in Geneva later this month to seek ways to jumpstart decade-old negotiations that were put on hold in April ahead of the presidential election in which Rouhani won a surprise first-round victory.

In an interview with the Associated Press released on Saturday, Obama said Rouhani had staked his credibility on dialogue and it was up to the United States to see if he had the political weight to follow through.

“He is not the only decision maker -- he is not even the ultimate decision maker,” Obama said, in reference to Khamenei.

US, Israel divided on nuclear 'red line'

Obama also laid out a timetable on a possible Iranian atomic bomb that contrasted with that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has warned that Tehran could cross an Israeli red line within “weeks".

However, an Israeli official on Saturday insisted Netanyahu was not referring to the time it would take Iran to manufacture an atomic bomb, but the time it would take to enrich the necessary uranium for one.

Netanyahu had secured a tougher line from Obama in his public comments after their White House talks last Monday, with the US president saying the use of military force was still on the table to stop Iran’s nuclear drive.

In his address to the General Assembly last Tuesday, Netanyahu himself warned that Israel was ready to unilaterally strike Iran.

Khamenei fired back after Netanyahu's comments, saying the US government is "seized by the international network of Zionism, and has to put up with the usurper (Israeli) regime and show flexibility towards it".

"We hear the repetitive and disgusting threats of the Iranian nation's enemies. Our response to any mischief will be serious and harsh," he said, echoing previous warnings of retaliation against the Jewish state and US bases and warships in the region in case of an attack.

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