WASHINGTON — Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected any idea of bilateral talks with the United States on Thursday, in a speech in which he seemed to dismiss the views of Iranian officials — including the country’s foreign minister — who had advocated for such negotiations.
“The Iranian nation will not negotiate under pressure,” Khamenei said. Noting the international sanctions against Iran, which were bolstered on Wednesday by new American financial restrictions that essentially reduce Iran to using its oil for barter trade, he added: “The U.S. is pointing a gun at Iran and wants us to talk to them. The Iranian nation will not be intimidated by these actions.”
“Direct talks will not solve any problems,” he concluded.
His statement was considered particularly important because, as one senior Obama administration official put it, “we believe Khamenei now holds the entire nuclear file.”
But the White House did not immediately react to the statement, and some officials said that history — including during the Iran-Iraq war — demonstrates that Iran can change its position quickly. Despite the ayatollah’s comments, it appears that talks scheduled to begin Feb. 26 between Iran and six nations, including the United States, will go ahead in Kazakhstan.
But U.S. officials have said repeatedly in recent months that they believe negotiating in that multinational forum can be awkward, partly because of differences with Russia and China over Tehran. That is one reason Vice President Joe Biden went to a security conference in Munich last weekend to publicly reinforce President Barack Obama’s private offer of direct talks.
It was at that conference that the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said he was open to such talks, although Biden noted that they could proceed only if the ayatollah showed serious interest. Salehi had been one of Iran’s top nuclear negotiators, and while he has often projected a moderate tone, he has also made it clear that his authority is limited. An effort to negotiate a deal early in Obama’s presidency resulted in an agreement that Khamenei rejected.
The ayatollah’s objection is an edict to which other Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, must adhere, and it comes after several high-ranking Iranian officials, including Ahmadinejad and Salehi, said that the Obama administration had been taking positive steps toward Iran. Khamenei’s wording was quite direct in his speech before air force commanders at his Tehran office, and his comments were reported on his personal website.
“I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” he said. “If anyone wants the return of U.S. dominance here, people will grab his throat.”
In Tehran, the comments were met with some sense of resignation — and suggestions that Obama’s openness to negotiation was a ploy, designed to set international opinion against Iran.