- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2010

TEHRAN | Iran’s supreme leader sharply denounced the United States Sunday, accusing it of plotting to overthrow its clerical leadership, in a chilly response to an overture by President Obama for better cultural ties with Iran.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did not outright reject Mr. Obama’s offer, saying Iran would keep an eye on Washington’s intentions. But the supreme leader said that so far, Washington’s offers of engagement with Tehran have been a deception.

The exchange was a sign of how Mr. Obama’s hopes for dialogue with Iran have broken down amid Tehran’s rejection of Western demands over its nuclear program and its heavy crackdown on the opposition following disputed presidential elections last June.

In his message, released Friday night to coincide with the Iranian new year, Nowruz, Mr. Obama told the Iranian people that Americans want better cultural exchanges with Iran — but he also criticized the Iranian leadership for “turning its back” on U.S. overtures.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say on all political matters in Iran, lashed back in a nationally televised address in an annual provincial visit to his hometown, Mashhad, telling Americans, “You cannot speak about peace and friendship while plotting to hit Iran.”

In particular, he denounced U.S. criticism of the postelection crackdown. Iran has arrested thousands in the wake of widespread protests that erupted against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the June vote, which the opposition says was fraudulent.

Referring to Mr. Obama’s message, Ayatollah Khamenei said, “We will examine the issue with sharp vision to determine if it really is a friendship hand and a friendly intention or hostile one in a deceptive framework.”

He said that in response to past overtures, “We said that if they are extending a metal hand inside a velvet glove, we won’t accept. Unfortunately, what we had guessed took place.”

U.S. support for the opposition proved that Mr. Obama’s claims to seek dialogue were a deception, he said. “The new U.S. administration … said they are willing to normalize relations. But unfortunately in practice they did the opposite,” Ayatollah Khamenei told a large crowd in the northeastern city of Mashhad, who several times broke into chants of “death to America” and “death to Obama.”

“The U.S. president called those street fighters civil rights activists,” the ayatollah said, referring to the protesters. “You talk of human rights and democracy … then you take the side of a bunch of rioters and call this a civil rights movement. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

In his message, Mr. Obama said the U.S. offer of diplomatic dialogue still stands, but that the Iranian government has chosen isolation.

The White House released the video late Friday, timing it, as it did last year, to coincide with Nowruz, a 12-day holiday celebrating the arrival of spring and the beginning of the new year on the Persian calendar.

The United States, which has not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has begun a new push for the United Nations to impose sanctions on Tehran for its refusal to rein in uranium enrichment. Washington and its allies fear Iran plans to use the process to build a nuclear bomb, an accusation denied by Iran, which says its program is intended only to generate electricity.

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