February 26, 2008 / 8:49 AM / 12 years ago

Iran's top cleric praises Ahmadinejad on atom issue

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority, said on Tuesday the Islamic Republic had won a victory in its nuclear program.

A woman walks past a mural on a wall of the former U.S. embassy in central Tehran, February 25, 2008. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

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

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in the 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 weaponization 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.

Iran had said it considers the nuclear file closed but says it will still work with IAEA.

“Although Iran’s (August) work plan ... was completed successfully, Iran is ready to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency in the framework of the (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) regulations,” Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, the official IRNA news agency reported.

The IAEA has said Iran should sign up to an Additional Protocol to give the agency inspectors more access to make checks. Iran halted such access in 2006.

Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Ralph Boulton

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