Iran’s supreme leader has pledged to aid any nation or group that challenges Israel and said any military strikes over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program would damage US interests in the Middle East “10 times over.”
The comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, broadcast nationally on Friday, staked out a hard-line in apparent replies to suggestions that military strikes are an increasing possibility if sanctions fail to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.
It also might 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 — which make nuclear fuel — to eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran says it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Israel has so far publicly backed the efforts by the US and EU for tougher sanctions that target Iran’s crucial oil exports. However, 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 US ally.
“A war itself will damage the US 10 times over” in the region, Khamenei said.
Khamenei said Iran would only emerge stronger.
“Iran will not withdraw. Then what happens?” Khamenei 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,” Khamenei said.
On Thursday, Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak said the world was increasingly ready to consider a military strike if sanctions fail.
The head of the country’s strategic affairs ministry, Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, also said Iran’s main military installations were still vulnerable to airstrikes — even as Iran starts up a new uranium enrichment facility deep in a mountainside bunker south of Tehran.
Yaalon’s comments appear to reinforce earlier suggestions by other Israel officials that the window for a possible attack is closing and Israel would need to strike by summer to inflict significant setbacks on Iran’s nuclear -facilities. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under standing guidelines.
At Ramstein Air Base in Germany, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said sanctions remain the best approach to pressure Iran.
However, he told US airmen on Friday that Washington keeps “all options on the table and would be prepared to respond if we have to.”
“From now on, in any place, if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will endorse and we will help. We have no fear expressing this,” said Khamenei, using the phrase widely used by Iran’s leader to describe Israel.
Khamenei affirmed that Iran had assisted groups such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas — a well-known policy rarely stated -explicitly by Iranian leaders.
“We have intervened in anti--Israel matters, and it brought victory,” he said, citing the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel and nearly three weeks of conflict in the Gaza Strip that began with an incursion by Israel in December 2008.