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Iran’s Khamenei rebuffs Obama’s New Year gesture

Sun., March 22, 2009

TEHRAN, Iran – Iran’s most powerful figure dismissed President Barack Obama’s extraordinary Persian New Year gesture, insisting Saturday that the U.S. administration’s actions must match its rhetoric before Iran would alter its foreign policy, in an apparent attempt to keep the political establishment unified behind an anti-American posture.

Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who is Iran’s highest spiritual, military and political authority, told supporters in his hometown of Mashhad that “changes in words” would not be enough to convince Iran that the Obama administration was sincere in its outlook.

“We do not have any record of the new U.S. president,” he said in a live television broadcast. “We are observing, watching and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago.”

The crowd chanted, “God is great! Khamenei is the leader!”

As he spoke, Khamenei glanced cursorily at his notes, suggesting that his words were carefully considered. His remarks were the most detailed and authoritative response by any Iranian leader to several attempts by the Obama administration to reach out to the Islamic republic.

Obama issued a 3 1/2-minute videotape early Friday morning congratulating Iranian people and officials on the occasion of the important holiday, acknowledging three decades of strained relations with America and offering a new beginning.

Iranian officials quickly responded by welcoming the address but voicing skepticism about its sincerity. On Saturday, Khamenei recited a list of alleged U.S. wrongdoings over the last three decades, including the 1988 downing of an Iranian civilian plane by a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf, the freezing of Iranian assets and strong support for Israel and armed Iranian opposition groups.

“They are talking of extending a hand to Iran on the occasion of the New Year and they are congratulating the Iranian people,” he said. “At the same time, they are accusing (Iran) of terrorism and the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.”

Khamenei’s quick, pointed response to Obama was unusual, and appeared to be an attempt to swiftly silence any voices within Iran’s divided political establishment that might be keen on responding genially to the New Year message.

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