TEHRAN, Iran – Iran stepped up its warnings to the United States Thursday, with the nation's supreme leader saying Tehran will strike U.S. interests around the world if his country is attacked.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's words were also likely meant as a show of toughness to rally Iranians, who are increasingly worried about the possibility of American military action as the two countries' standoff has grown more tense.
Days earlier, an Iranian diplomat was detained in Iraq in an incident that Iran blamed on America. The United States denied any role. The U.S. also says it has no plans to strike Iran militarily, but has sent a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf to show strength in the face of rising Iranian regional influence.
But many in Iran say they fear attack. Iranian media and Web sites have almost daily commentaries on a possible U.S. attack -- some of them blaming hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the deterioration in the already sour U.S.-Iranian relations by his provocative rhetoric against America and Israel.
Speaking to Iranian air force commanders, Khamenei said: "The enemy knows well that any invasion would be followed by a comprehensive reaction to the invaders and their interests all over the world." His words were carried on state-run TV.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey, asked about the comments, said American efforts on Iran focus on diplomacy. The two are in dispute over Iran's nuclear program and its role in Iraq.
"Our efforts to respond to Iran's nuclear program are focused on diplomacy. ... I think we've made it clear that what our intentions are, is to pursue this issue through diplomatic channels," Casey said.
Even as Iran's rhetoric has escalated, it has increasingly insisted it is open to a diplomatic solution to its standoff with the West. Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said Wednesday he would meet European officials for talks on Iran's nuclear program during a security conference this weekend in Munich, Germany.
Tehran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, complained in a column published Thursday in The New York Times that the United States was trying to make Iran a "scapegoat" for Washington's failures in the Mideast, particularly Iraq. He warned that efforts to isolate Iran would backfire on the United States, increasing sectarian tensions in the region.
The United States is reaping "the expected bitter fruits of its ill-conceived adventurism" in Iraq, he said.
"But rather than face these unpleasant facts, the United States administration is trying to sell an escalated version of the same failed policy. It does this by trying to make Iran its scapegoat and fabricating evidence of Iranian activities in Iraq," he said.
Zarif also made clear, however, that Iran wants to be part of some regional and international solution to calm Iraq, despite U.S. rejection of the idea of reaching out to Iran for help.
Solving Iraq's problems requires "prudence, dialogue and a genuine search for solutions," he wrote. "Only through such regional cooperation, with the necessary international support, can we contain the current crisis and prevent future ones."
Before becoming U.N. ambassador, Zarif was an aide to pro-reform former President Mohammad Khatami. His comments thus may represent an attempt to balance Khamenei's combative rhetoric with diplomatic pragmatism.
They also reflect a widespread feeling among many Iranians that they wish the United States and Iran would find a way to talk directly.
Also Thursday, Iran's intelligence minister said the government had detected a network of U.S. and Israeli spies operating on its borders and had detained a group of Iranians who planned to go abroad for espionage training, state television reported.
But the minister, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, did not say whether any members of the U.S.-Israeli network had been arrested nor provide any details on the Iranians.
Khamenei's words are not that unusual -- Iranian leaders often speak of a crushing response to any attack as a way to drum up domestic support.
But the rhetoric overall has escalated: two weeks ago, the official publication of the country's elite Revolutionary Guards, Sobh-e-Sadegh, noted it would be easy to kidnap Americans and transfer them to "any location of choice" in retaliation for any attack.
Many Iranians have said they feel under siege and fear an attack despite U.S. denials of such a plan. President Bush has ordered American troops to act against Iranians suspected of being involved in the Iraqi insurgency, in addition to sending the second carrier to the region.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions because of Iran's refusal to cease uranium enrichment, and is due to consider strengthening them later this month.
Iran also successfully test-fired a cruise missile Thursday over the Oman Sea and the northern Indian Ocean. Iran routinely tests missiles.
Gen. Ali Fadavi of the Revolutionary Guards told state-run radio the missile, with a 217-mile range and a 1,102-pound warhead, was fired in low-level flight from a launcher.
Asked by reporters about Iranian military exercises in the Gulf and whether they posed a threat to U.S. forces, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "My impression is they make threats like this from time to time. We have no intention of attacking Iran."
Gates was in Seville, Spain, for a gathering of NATO ministers.
He added, "It's just another day in the Persian Gulf."