DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Iran’s supreme leader lashed out at the United States in a defiant speech yesterday, vowing to retaliate against oil sanctions and threats of war over Iran’s nuclear program and asserting that any attack “would be 10 times worse for the interests of the United States’’ than it would be for Iran.
The speech made during Friday prayers and broadcast live to the nation came amid deepening US concern about a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear enrichment sites by Israel, whose leaders delivered blunt new warnings Thursday about what they called the need to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli leaders have issued mixed signals regarding their intentions, suggesting that they are willing, for a short time at least, to wait and see if increasingly strict economic sanctions, including a European oil embargo, might deter Iran.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also issued an unusually blunt warning that Iran would support militant groups opposing Israel, in what some analysts said could be held up by Israel as a casus belli, a justification of a conflict or war. Khamenei’s remarks, delivered from Tehran University, were his most public response to the mounting tensions between Western powers and Iran in recent weeks.
Khamenei said Iran “had its own tools’’ to respond to threats of war and would use them “if necessary,’’ the semiofficial Mehr news agency reported. He also said the threats would not stop Iran from continuing its nuclear program, which it maintains is for peaceful purposes only.
Khamenei referred to the sanctions as “painful and crippling,’’ according to Iranian news agencies, acknowledging the effect of recent measures aimed at cutting Iran’s central bank off from the international financial system. But he also said the sanctions would ultimately benefit his country.
“They will make us more self-reliant,’’ he said, according to a translation by Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency. “We would not achieve military progress if sanctions were not imposed on Iran’s military sector.’’
In recent weeks, senior US and European officials have flown to Israel to counsel patience, warning that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment sites could backfire and strengthen what they called its determination to acquire nuclear weapons. But Israeli officials say they are worried that Iran may soon be immune to the threat of airstrikes as its enrichment facilities are moved into deep mountain bunkers.
Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, said Thursday that if sanctions fail to stop Iran’s nuclear program, Israel would need to “consider taking action,’’ according to a report in the daily newspaper, Haaretz.
US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, in comments yesterday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, echoed a similar sentiment.
“My view is that right now the most important thing is to keep the international community unified in keeping that pressure on, to try to convince Iran that they shouldn’t develop a nuclear weapon, that they should join the international family of nations, and that they should operate by the rules that we all operate by,’’ he said. “If they don’t, we have all options on the table, and we’ll be prepared to respond if we have to.’’
But Iran gave little indication that it is willing to ease concerns over its nuclear program.
Iran told inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency this week that it would prevent access to sites and personnel that the West suspects of advancing the nation’s work toward nuclear arms capability, damaging what had been considered a major diplomatic opening.
“Disaster is too strong a word,’’ said a diplomat at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna who was briefed on the outcome of the recent talks.
“Iran has refused to address the issue for three years now,’’ the diplomat said. “To be fair, you have to give them credit for at least discussing it. The dialogue is continuing - and that’s a good sign - although the agency would have liked to get an access pledge.’’
The agency, which is the nuclear proliferation monitor of the United Nations, has long tried to get Tehran to address what it calls evidence of the “military dimensions’’ of Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran has repeatedly dismissed the evidence as fabricated or taken out of context and had refused to engage in substantive discussions or inspections.
Then, in November, the agency made public its most detailed summary of the weapons allegations, and Iran this year agreed to its first substantive talks on the topic. The inspectors went to Iran for a three-day visit that ended this past Tuesday.
“The agency expressed interest in all the areas of concern,’’ said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The team asked for access in the future to different types of sites and personnel, and that was denied.’’