TEHRAN, Iran – Iran is not opposed to direct talks with the U.S. to resolve its nuclear standoff with the West, the country's top leader said Thursday in comments that appeared to soften its long-held policy of outright rejection of bilateral talks with Washington.
But Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he's not optimistic that such talks would yield results unless Washington stops imposing sanctions against the Islamic Republic. His remarks came as President Barack Obama visits Iran's archrival, Israel, which has repeatedly threatened to take military action should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a bomb.
Addressing a crowd in northeastern Iran on the first day of the new Persian calendar year, Khamenei also had a strong warning for Israel.
"Sometimes, leaders of the Zionist regime threaten us. They threaten to take military action. They are not in the size to be put in the list of Iranian nation's enemies," Khamenei said in comments broadcast live on state TV.
In a strong warning to Israel, Khamenei said that if Israel attacked Iran, Tehran would "level Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground."
The U.S. and its allies fear that Iran will ultimately be able to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran has denied the charges, saying its nuclear program is geared towards generating electricity and producing radioisotopes to treat cancer patients.
Khamenei claimed the U.S. wants to impose its will on Tehran.
"The Americans constantly send messages to us through various ways, saying let's hold (bilateral) talks on the nuclear issue," Khamenei said. "I'm not optimistic on these talks. Why? Because our previous experiences show that dialogue, in the logic of American gentlemen ... means let's sit down and talk so that you (Iran) accept our views. This is not dialogue. This is imposition and we won't give in to it."
Iran is living under stepped-up Western sanctions that include a total oil embargo and banking restrictions that make it increasingly difficult for Iran's Asian customers to pay for oil deliveries. Iran's income from oil and gas exports has dropped by about 50 percent as a result of sanctions.
Khamenei said the U.S. has sent messages to Tehran, sometimes in writing, saying it is willing to hold bilateral talks with Tehran separately from the negotiations Iran is holding with five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
"I'm not optimistic about these talks, but I'm not opposed to it either," he said.
However, Khamenei said the best way to resolve the standoff would be for the West to recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium and agree to a monitoring process to ensure that it won't be used for weapons.
"Iran only wants that the world recognize its enrichment right which is its natural right," he said.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, said there is no reason why Tehran should trust the U.S. when Washington doesn't trust Tehran.
"We have repeatedly told you that we are not after nuclear weapons. You say you don't believe us. Why should we believe you? When you are not ready to accept an honest and logical remark, why should we accept your words that have been disproved many times?" he asked.
Khamenei alleged that the U.S. wants the nuclear issue to remain unresolved so it will continue to have basis for the sanctions, which he said have harmed, but not crippled the Iranian economy.
"Yes, sanctions have had an effect. If they (U.S.) want to be happy, let them be," he said.
"Our economy suffers from the problem of being dependent on oil," he said. "We have to distance our economy (from oil dependence)."
In Jerusalem on Wednesday, Obama said he continues to prefer a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute with Iran and thinks there is time to achieve one. Whether that works, he said, will depend on whether Iran's leaders "seize that opportunity."
Although Obama did not promise that the United States would act militarily against Iran if Israel decided that must be done, he offered an explicit endorsement for Israel to take whatever unilateral measures it deems necessary to guard against the threat.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said both he and Obama agree that it would take Iran about a year to manufacture a nuclear weapon.