TEHRAN (Reuters) - If the West wanted to help Libyan civilians it would arm them rather than bombing Muammar Gaddafi, Iran’s leader said on Monday, accusing Washington of seeking a strategic “foothold” in oil-rich Libya.
In a speech to mark the new Iranian year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected U.S. President Barack Obama’s assertion that opposition protesters in Iran were the same as pro-democracy masses that have risen up against autocratic governments across the Middle East.
Khamenei has welcomed the uprisings in the Arab world as part of an “Islamic awakening” and poured scorn on the West’s military moves to protect Libyan civilians.
“We condemn 100 percent how Gaddafi was and is dealing with the people ... the killing of civilians,” he said. “But we also condemn 100 percent the entrance and interference of America and the West.”
“They could have armed them, given them anti-aircraft batteries, instead they witnessed the massacre of the people for one month,” he told a packed shrine in the holy city of Mashhad.
“You plan to use Libya as a foothold to be able to monitor the revolutionary future governments in Tunisia and Egypt. That is your corrupt intention,” Khamenei said to a crowd that chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Obama.”
The White House said its aim for the bombing -- which began after a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsed action to protect civilians -- was not regime change, but Russia, which abstained in the U.N. vote, likened the intervention to the medieval crusades.
Gaddafi’s concessions to the West over Libya’s nuclear program showed Iran was right to continue to reject any curb to its nuclear development -- despite sanctions imposed by countries who fear Tehran might be building nuclear arms, Khamenei said.
Whereas Libya had given up its nuclear capacities in exchange for incentives that Khamenei compared to giving candy to a child, Iran “not only did not retreat but, despite all the efforts, officials tried to increase nuclear facilities year after year.”
While voicing support for demonstrators in the region and condemning government repression, Iran has crushed protests at home and jailed scores of demonstrators since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed presidential election in June 2009.
Khamenei lampooned Obama who, in what has become an annual address to Iranians on their new year, said Iranians who staged huge post-election protests were driven by the same “forces of hope” as the people who brought down Mubarak.
“He says people in Tehran’s Azadi square are the same as people in Tahrir Square in Egypt. He is right, every year (on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution) the people of this nation gather at Azadi Square and their slogan is ‘Down with America’,” he said.
Iran calls the opposition movement a “sedition,” backed by Iran’s foreign foes. It has deployed large numbers of security forces to prevent efforts to rekindle the protests which were crushed at the end of 2009.
On the crackdown in Bahrain, where the Sunni Muslim ruling family has received military support from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Khamenei said it was wrong to see Iran’s moral support for the largely Shi‘ite protesters as a sectarian matter.
“In Bahrain, there is no conflict between Shi‘ites and Sunnis. it is rather a nation’s protest against the oppression that is being imposed on it.”
“We believe the Saudi government made a mistake. It shouldn’t have done it (sending troops) and it is making itself hateful in the region,” he said. “They made a mistake and anyone else who does this (send troops) will make a mistake.”
Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian; editing by Patrick Graham