Tehran will retaliate against any attack by Israeli or American forces “on the same level,” Iran’s top leader said Tuesday in a defiant address just moments after U.S. President Barack Obama appealed directly to the Iranian people with a message of solidarity.
The contrasting approaches highlighted the broad range of political posturing and tactics as the standoff deepens over Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on state TV to mark the Iranian new year, repeated his claims that the country does not seek atomic weapons, but said all of Iran’s conventional firepower was ready to respond to any attack.
“We do not have atomic weapons and we will not build one. But against an attack by enemies – to defend ourselves either against the U.S. or Zionist regime – we will attack them on the same level that they attack us,” he said, using the term Iranian authorities often use for Israel.
Despite the hard-edged tone for most of the speech, there were hints of overtures toward America before a possible resumption of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers. He urged the U.S. to have a “respectful attitude” toward Iran – suggesting it could bring dividends.
Earlier this month, Khamenei gave a rare nod of approval to Washington after Obama said he favored diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute.
In a video message for the Iranian new year, known as Nowruz, Obama tried to reach out to the Iranian people, saying there was “no reason for the United States and Iran to be divided from one another.” But he denounced Iranian authorities for setting up an “electronic curtain” that keeps Iranians from making their voices heard with those of America and the West.
“Increasingly, the Iranian people are denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want,” Obama said after the U.S. Treasury Department opened the way for American companies to export Internet communications software and other materials to Iran.
“Instead, the Iranian government jams satellite signals to shut down television and radio broadcasts. It censors the Internet to control what the Iranian people can see and say. The regime monitors computers and cellphones for the sole purpose of protecting its own power,” Obama added.
Obama has used Nowruz for outreach to ordinary Iranians in the past, but it’s unclear how many people are reached because of widespread Internet firewalls and efforts to block broadcasts such as Farsi language programs of the BBC and Voice of America. Still, satellite dishes are common – although illegal – and outside channels reach many Iranian homes.
The two nations are at odds because the West and its allies fear Iran could use its uranium enrichment program to eventually develop material for nuclear warheads. Iran says it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Obama has urged for more time to allow sanctions to cut deeper into Iran’s economy, which has been hit by the latest pressures targeting oil exports and the ability to conduct international banking. Israeli officials have said there is no decision yet on whether to launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but analysts in both countries have become increasingly nervous about the risks of touching off a regionwide war.
Russia warned Tuesday that Iran would have no option but to develop nuclear weapons if it came under attack from either the United States or Israel.
“The CIA and other U.S. officials admit they now have no information about the Iranian leadership taking the political decision to produce nuclear weapons,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Moscow’s Kommersant FM radio.
“But I am almost certain that such a decision will surely be taken after [any] strikes on Iran,” Lavrov said.
In his televised speech, Khamenei claimed the West seeks only to dominate Iran’s oil exports, the second largest in OPEC behind Saudi Arabia.
“If Iran was ready to surrender before them, as some countries in the region, they would not have any hostility toward Iran,” said Khamenei.
Earlier Tuesday, Khamenei said that more support for domestic industrial production can counter Western sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The official IRNA news agency quoted Khamenei as saying Iran could withstand the economic pressures, which include blocking many Iranian banks from the network that handles most international banking transfers.
Iran has faced decades of sanctions. However, the latest sanctions placed in recent months are far tougher than previous ones and target Iran’s banking sector and critical oil exports that provide some $75 billion, around 80 percent of the country’s foreign revenue.
“If the Iranian nation resorts to its determination, awareness and planning it will overcome challenges that the enemy has provided,” said Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state.
He said that if Iran’s domestic economy flourishes, the country’s enemies would lose hope and their “plotting” would come to an end.