February 26, 2008 / 3:18 PM / 11 years ago

Iran's top cleric praises Ahmadinejad on atom issue

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Tuesday the Islamic Republic won a victory in its nuclear program and credited the president for the success before a March parliament election.

In his first public comment on the nuclear issue since a U.N. watchdog report last week, Khamenei praised the handling of the case by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has often alarmed the West with speeches vowing no retreat.

The supportive words may be a welcome boost to backers of Ahmadinejad before the March election seen as a test of his popularity, although Khamenei does not endorse any party. Critics of the president blame him for isolating Iran with uncompromising speeches.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in its report that Iran had clarified issues raised as part of a work plan agreed in August, but not answered Western allegations of studies into the possible weaponisation of nuclear materials.

Western powers are pushing for a third round of sanctions against Iran for not halting work they fear is aimed at building atomic bombs. Tehran denies the charge, saying it wants skills to generate electricity so it can export more oil and gas.

“One example of an advance by the Islamic system has been the nuclear issue, in which the Iranian nation has honestly and seriously achieved a great victory,” Khamenei was quoted by state radio as telling Iranian officials.

Analysts had speculated last year that the United States could attack Iran’s nuclear facilities unless Tehran stopped its atomic work, an option Washington has still has not ruled out.

But the case for military action was undermined by a U.S. intelligence report in December saying Iran had halted a weapons program in 2003, analysts said.

Some also said Iran, partly in a bid to avert a military confrontation, had offered a discreet olive branch by using its influence to help calm violence in Iraq.

Khamenei said those opposed to Iran’s nuclear program were giving ground because of Iran’s determination.

“Those people who used to say Iran’s nuclear activity must be dismantled are now saying we are ready to accept your advances, on condition that it will not continue indefinitely,” he said, adding that this was achieved through “perseverance”.

Khamenei has the final say in all state matters, including nuclear policy, under Iran’s system of clerical rule, which puts his word above that of the president and other state bodies.

UNEQUIVOCAL STANCE

The supreme leader echoed Ahmadinejad, who said in his reaction to the IAEA report that experience had shown that when Iran resisted the West’s demands, Iran’s opponents backed down.

“(Khamenei) regarded the role of the person of the president in the advance of the nuclear as outstanding,” the radio said.

The U.N. Security Council has demanded Iran halt uranium enrichment, the part of its nuclear program that most worries the West because the process can be used to make fuel for power plants or, potentially, material for bombs. Iran has refused.

Khamenei took aim at the last parliament, which was controlled by pro-reform politicians. That camp, now out of power, has often questioned Ahmadinejad’s handling of the atomic case by saying his uncompromising approach has isolated Iran.

“Unlike the efforts of some in the previous term, the seventh majlis (this parliament) acted steadfastly,” he said.

Before Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, the previous administration agreed to suspend enrichment. Since that deal was scrapped, Khamenei has said Iran would not compromise.

On the election, Khamenei described efforts by the “enemy”, usually a reference to Washington and its allies, “to divide politicians into extremists and moderates” in a bid to influence the March 14 vote but he said such efforts would fail.

“The enemy ... has announced clearly one should increase the pressure on Iran so moderates ... come to power in the election,” he said. “The vast majority of people and officials believe in the principles of the system and revolution.”

Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Samia Nakhoul

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