Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on Thursday that Tehran would destroy the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa if its nuclear infrastructure came under attack from the Jewish state.
Israel puts little stock in big power negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s uranium enrichment — which Western nations suspect is a conduit to nuclear weapons capability — and has repeatedly hinted at pre-emptive war against its arch-enemy.
During a visit to Israel on Thursday, US President Barack Obama acknowledged its security concerns, saying: “America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear Iran.”
However, he also said big powers believed there was still time for a diplomatic solution.
Russia said Iran and six global powers made headway in expert-level talks this week to ease the 10-year-long standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but the risk of backsliding toward confrontation remained. Higher-level political talks between the powers and Iran are to resume in the Kazakh city of Almaty early next month.
Khamenei, in a televised speech marking the Iranian new year, said: “At times the officials of the Zionist regime [Israel] threaten to launch a military invasion, but they themselves know that if they make the slightest mistake the Islamic Republic will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground.”
The top Shiite Muslim cleric, Iran’s most powerful figure, dismissed any threat from Israel, describing it as “not big enough to stand out among the Iranian nation’s enemies.”
The standoff now turns on Iran’s enrichment of uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent, which the West sees as a big step toward processing the material for use in nuclear bombs.
Tehran says 20 percent enrichment will yield solely fuel for a medical research reactor, and that its nuclear quest is wholly peaceful.
“We have told you numerous times that we are not after nuclear weapons,” Khamenei said, addressing Washington in front of thousands of adoring faithful who had come to the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad to hear him speak.
He responded coolly to recent US suggestions of direct talks between the two countries, which have had no diplomatic relations since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis involving US diplomats in Tehran.
“I am not optimistic about these talks. Why? Because our past experiences show that talks for the American officials do not mean for us to sit down and reach a logical solution ... What they mean by talks is that we sit down and talk until Iran accepts their viewpoint,” he said.
“I am not optimistic about their comments but I am not opposed either,” he said, adding that the solution to the issue was “close-by and easy” if only the US genuinely wanted to reach an agreement.