- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

TEHRAN | Iran will retaliate against any attack by Israeli or American forces “on the same level,” the Islamic republic’s top leader said Tuesday in a defiant address just moments after President 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 Tehran’s nuclear program.

Iran 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 he 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, Ayatollah 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, Mr. 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 American and the West.

“Increasingly, the Iranian people are denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want,” Mr. Obama said after the Treasury Department opened the way for U.S. 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,” Mr. Obama added.

The president 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.

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