Ayatollah 'not opposed' to nuclear talks

Iran's supreme leader still mostly defiant in lengthy speech

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TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivered a lengthy, sweeping speech at the country's holiest site Thursday in which he suggested that he is open to nuclear talks, if not optimistic about their outcome.

A day after Iran celebrated its new year, the ayatollah, speaking at the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city and his hometown, covered a range of issues he deemed essential for Iran to address in the coming year, including the impact of sanctions, the nation's over-reliance on oil revenue, the possibility of negotiations with the United States and the Iranian presidential election scheduled for June.

In his remarks, broadcast live on state television, the supreme leader also issued a warning to Israel's leaders. "At times, the officials of the Zionist regime threaten to launch a military invasion," he said. "But they themselves know that if they make the slightest mistake, the Islamic republic will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground."

Alluding to U.S.-led economic sanctions on Iran, he said, "The enemies' efforts to isolate us have failed completely," although he acknowledged that sanctions targeting the country's vital oil sector and its ability to conduct international bank transactions have done harm.

Despite his defiant tone, the ayatollah hinted at a possible break in Iran's diplomatic impasse with the United States and other Western powers over his country's refusal to halt its uranium enrichment activities.

"I am not optimistic about talks with the U.S., but I'm not opposed to them either," he said, but adding that America must prove that negotiations are not simply "a tactic designed to deceive public opinion." In his opinion, he said, the United States "doesn't want the nuclear conflict to end."

"If they want it to end, the solution is easy and within reach," he said, adding that Iran had followed rules laid out by the International Atomic Energy Agency and would continue to do so.

Ayatollah Khamenei spent the final portion of the nearly 90-minute speech discussing the importance of the June presidential vote. "All political groups who believe in the Islamic republic must take part," he said.

Although he was previously supportive of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a political rift has developed between the two men over the past two years, with Mr. Ahmadinejad at times publicly defying the more powerful ayatollah. In an apparent jab at Mr. Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader said, "The next president must have all the strong points of the current president without any of his weaknesses."

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