TEHRAN, Iran – Iran’s supreme leader pledged Friday to aid any nation or group that challenges Israel and said any military strikes over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would damage U.S. interests in the Middle East “10 times over.”
The nationally broadcast comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei staked out a hard line in apparent replies to suggestions that military strikes are an increasing possibility if sanctions fail to rein in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
It also may signal that Tehran’s proxy forces – led by Lebanon’s Islamic militant group Hezbollah – could be given the green light to revive attacks on Israel as the showdown between the archfoes intensifies.
The West and its allies fear Iran could use its uranium enrichment labs to eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Israel has so far publicly backed the efforts by the U.S. and European Union for tougher sanctions that target Iran’s crucial oil exports. But Israeli leaders have urged even harsher measures and warn that military action remains a clear option despite Western appeals to allow time for the economic pressures and isolation to bear down on Iran.
Although Israel has raised the strongest hints over a military campaign, Khamenei reserved some of his strongest comments for Israel’s key U.S. ally.
“A war itself will damage the U.S. 10 times over” in the region, said Khamenei.
Khamenei claimed Iran, however, could only emerge stronger. “Iran will not withdraw. Then what happens?” he asked. “In conclusion, the West’s hegemony and threats will be discredited” in the Middle East. “The hegemony of Iran will be promoted. In fact, this will be in our service.”
At Ramstein Air Base in Germany, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said sanctions remain the best approach to pressure Iran. But he told U.S. airmen Friday that Washington keeps “all options on the table and would be prepared to respond if we have to.”