Senior US Official Brushes Off Rant of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Says Americans Do It, Too

Patrick Goodenough | November 22, 2013 | 4:15am EST
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Members of Iran's Basij militia react during supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speech in Tehran on Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Photo: Office of the supreme leader)

( – A senior Obama administration official reacted mildly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s vitriolic speech this week, comparing the harsh rhetoric coming from Iran’s supreme leader to anti-Iranian views expressed by some Americans.

“There are decades of mistrust between the United States and Iran, and we certainly have had many people in our society say difficult things about Iran and Iranians,” said the official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity on the sidelines of talks in Geneva, where six world powers are hoping to secure a deal over Iran’s nuclear program.

The official had been asked about Khamenei’s inflammatory remarks, in a speech to militiamen on Wednesday, in which he called Israel a “sinister, unclean rabid dog,” said it was “doomed to fall,” and accused the U.S. of crimes against humanity. Among the latter charges: Two months after Japan had indicated a readiness to surrender during World War II the U.S. had gone ahead and dropped atom bombs anyway, he said, because it wanted to test them “in a real situation.”

“Of course, I don’t ever like it when people use rhetoric that in any way talks about the U.S. in ways that I find very uncomfortable and not warranted whatsoever,” the administration official said. “It is, of course, of concern.”

“I would hope that neither in the U.S. nor in Iran would leaders use rhetoric that may work well in a domestic constituency, but add to the decades of mistrust on both sides,” the official added.

Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Khamenei’s comments were “not helpful, but we still believe that both sides are negotiating in good faith.”

When Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday on an unrelated matter, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked him to respond to Khamenei’s “rabid dog” comment and his World War II atomic bomb accusation.

“Obviously we disagree with it profoundly – you’re asking the obvious,” he replied. “It’s inflammatory and it’s unnecessary and I think at this moment when we are trying to negotiate and to figure out what can and can’t be achieved, the last thing we need are names back and forth.

“I don’t want to exacerbate it now, sitting here, but our good friends in Israel know full well that we defend their concerns,” Kerry said.

He did not directly condemn the comments.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) called on the administration to condemn Khamenei’s attack.

“The supreme leader has the final say in Iran’s affairs. His anti-Western broadside must be taken seriously and thoroughly condemned,” he said. “His despicable words sure don’t build confidence. I remain deeply concerned that the Obama administration is close to taking a bad deal with a bad regime.”

The mild response to the supreme leader’s speech also raised eyebrows in Israel, which is already deeply suspicious of Iran’s motives in pursuing the talks in Geneva and worried that the negotiators will settle for a deal that doesn’t conclusively end the threat.

An Israeli lawmaker, Hilik Bar, wrote a letter to Kerry and European Union officials including foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton, the convener of the Geneva talks, expressing disappointment at their reaction to what he called “the dark, racist statements and incitement” from Iran.

“I was disappointed to hear no strong condemnation nor any official censure whatsoever by the United States, the European countries, nor the E.U. itself,” he wrote in the letter, a copy of which was provided by his office late Thursday.

“These comments from Khamenei, in the middle of talks with the world’s powers, allow the world to understand with what kind of regime we are dealing, and with whose leaders the world has been trying to reach a reasonable compromise in recent days,” Bar said. “But reasonable compromises are made with reasonable people, not with inciting, racist, bloodthirsty leaders who intend to annihilate a democratic state – a U.N. member – and who are not ashamed to say it out loud.”

Bar, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, is a member of the Labor party and chairs a caucus that advocates a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“It is not easy to promote the idea of peace among the Israeli public when Israelis feel attacked and vulnerable, and when they do not have the verbal and moral support of our closest allies, countries that share with us the same moral values of peace, democracy and freedom,” he said.

‘Making progress’

On Wednesday evening the U.S. delegation to the talks in Geneva, led by undersecretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman, held what the State Department said was a “brief bilateral discussion” with the Iranian delegation.

The talks, which also involve Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, continued Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Psaki said in Washington.

“Our negotiators are making progress, but as we all know, these issues are complicated and require time to hash out.”

Psaki said the six powers remain “entirely united in our proposal, and we are focused on doing everything we can to conclude a first step agreement with Iran.”

The administration has – successfully thus far – urged the Senate to hold off on moving ahead with new Iran sanctions legislation that passed in the House with overwhelming support last summer, to give time for the diplomacy to proceed.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday the Senate would delay the move until next month, but that “we need to leave our legislative options open to act on a new, bipartisan sanctions bill in December, shortly after we return” from a two-week recess.

Many lawmakers argue that now is the time to keep the pressure on, rather than begin to ease it. Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) introduced separate new legislation on Thursday with that stated goal.

The Iran Nuclear Compliance Act of 2013 would “restrict sanctions relief until Iran agrees to eliminate the threat of its nuclear program,” and would immediately restore all sanctions if Iran violated the terms of any interim agreement negotiated with the six powers.

A key element of the bill is the requirement that Iran complies with obligations including the terms of six U.N. Security Council resolutions passed between 2006 and 2010, all of which demand that Iran suspend “all” uranium enrichment activity.

Asked whether Corker’s bill was unhelpful right now, Psaki said, “Given how sensitive and difficult these [talks] are, certainly any piece – any indication that the United States isn’t serious about the diplomatic track is unhelpful.”

She added that the administration was “appreciative” of Reid’s announcement of a delay in moving ahead with the additional sanctions legislation.

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