- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

TEHRAN | Iran’s supreme leader rebuffed President Obama’s latest outreach Saturday, saying Tehran was still waiting to see concrete changes in U.S. policy.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was responding to a video message Mr. Obama released Friday in which he reached out to Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year, and expressed hopes for an improvement in nearly 30 years of strained relations.

Ayatollah Khamenei holds the last word on major policy decisions, and how Iran ultimately responds to any concrete U.S. effort to engage the country will depend largely on his say.

In his most direct assessment of Mr. Obama and prospects for better ties, Ayatollah Khamenei said there will be no change between the two countries unless the president puts an end to U.S. hostility toward Iran and brings “real changes” in foreign policy.

“They chant the slogan of change, but no change is seen in practice. We haven’t seen any change,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech before tens of thousands of people in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad.

In his video message, Mr. Obama said the United States wants to engage Iran, but he also warned that a place for Iran in the international community “cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.”

Ayatollah Khamenei asked how Mr. Obama could congratulate Iranians on the new year and accuse the country of supporting terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons in the same message.

Ayatollah Khamenei said there has been no change even in Mr. Obama’s language compared to that of his predecessor.

“[Mr. Obama] insulted the Islamic Republic of Iran from the first day. If you are right that change has come, where is that change? What is the sign of that change? Make it clear for us what has changed,” he said.

Still, Ayatollah Khamenei left the door open to better ties with the United States, saying “should you change, our behavior will change, too.”

Diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran were cut following the U.S. Embassy hostage-taking after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the pro-U.S. shah and brought to power a government of Islamic clerics.

The United States cooperated with Iran in late 2001 and 2002 in the Afghanistan conflict, but the promising contacts fizzled - and were extinguished when former President George W. Bush branded Tehran part of the “Axis of Evil.”

Ayatollah Khamenei enumerated a long list of Iranian grievances against the United States over the past 30 years and said the United States was still interfering in Iranian affairs.

He mentioned U.S. sanctions against Iran, U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during his 1980-88 war against Iran and the downing of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988.

He also accused the United States of provoking ethnic tension in Iran and said Washington’s accusations that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons are a sign of U.S. hostility. Iran said its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, such as energy production, not for building weapons.

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