Iran lauds arms supply to Palestinians against ‘tumor’ Israel

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader on Friday denounced Israel as a “tumor” to be removed and hailed Tehran’s supply of arms to Palestinians, drawing swift condemnation from the United States, European Union and Israel.

Opposition to Israel is a core belief for Shi’ite Muslim-led Iran. The Islamic Republic supports Palestinian and Lebanese armed groups opposed to peace with Israel, which Tehran refuses to recognize.

“The Zionist regime (Israel) is a deadly, cancerous tumor in the region. It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an online speech.

The United States and European Union rejected the comments.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter dismissed them as “disgusting and hateful anti-Semitic remarks” that did not represent the tradition of tolerance of ordinary Iranians.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said they were “totally unacceptable and represent a deep source of concern”.

Although leaders of Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have frequently praised Iran’s financial and military support, Khamenei had not himself previously given public confirmation of Tehran’s weapons supply.

“Iran realized Palestinian fighters’ only problem was lack of access to weapons. With divine guidance and assistance, we planned, and the balance of power has been transformed in Palestine, and today the Gaza Strip can stand against the aggression of the Zionist enemy and defeat it,” he said.

Israeli Defence Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said: “The State of Israel has great challenges in a variety of arenas. Khamenei’s statement that Israel is a ‘cancerous tumor’ illustrates this more than anything.”

He said on Facebook: “I do not suggest anyone to test us …We will be prepared for all threats, and by any means.”

In a statement described as a response to Khamenei, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Those that invoke the threat of destruction against Israel put themselves in similar danger.”

RALLIES CANCELLED

Zeyad al-Nakhala, chief of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has publicly admitted getting Iranian arms and funds, praised Khamenei’s comments. “We are ready for a long jihad and victory is granted,” he said in remarks distributed by the group.

Iranian officials have repeatedly called for an end to Israel, including by a referendum that would exclude most of its Jews while including Palestinians in the region and abroad.

Khamenei suggested global attention on the coronavirus crisis had helped obscure wrongs done to Palestinians. “The long-lasting virus of Zionists will be eliminated,” he added.

Khamenei was speaking on Iran’s annual Quds Day, which uses the Arabic name for Jerusalem, held on the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Iran cancelled nationwide Quds Day rallies due to coronavirus. Iran is one of the most affected countries in the region with 7,300 deaths and a total of 131,652 infections.

Khamenei also denounced what he called treason by “political and cultural mercenaries in Muslim countries” helping Zionists to downplay the Palestine issue, an apparent reference to some Arab states including Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Tel Aviv, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean/Mark Heinrich)

Iran will support any nation or group that fights Israel: supreme leader

(Reuters) – Iran will support any nation or group that fights Israel, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday.

“We will support and assist any nation or any group anywhere who opposes and fights the Zionist regime, and we do not hesitate to say this,” Khamenei said in a post on his official English language Twitter account.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Iran holds election, hardliners set to dominate with turnout key

By Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians voted on Friday in a parliamentary election likely to help hardline loyalists of the supreme leader tighten their grip on power as the country faces mounting U.S. pressure over its nuclear program and growing discontent at home.

State television said voting, which began at 0430 GMT, would run for 10 hours but could be extended depending on turnout. In mid-afternoon, an Interior Ministry official told state TV that about 11 million of 58 million eligible voters had cast their ballots for candidates in the 290-member parliament.

The election is seen as a referendum on the popularity of the clerical establishment given that most moderates and leading conservative candidates were barred from running.

With thousands of potential candidates disqualified in favor of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s allies, the vote is not expected to ease Iran’s nuclear standoff with the United States or spawn a softer foreign policy.

Parliament’s power is limited, but gains by security hawks could weaken pragmatists and conservatives who support the ruling theocracy but also more economically beneficial engagement with the West, from which Tehran has been estranged since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

A rise in the number of hardliners in the assembly may also help them in the 2021 contest for president, a job with broad daily control of government. Pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani won the last two elections on promises to open Iran to the outside world.

The United States’ 2018 withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and its reimposition of sanctions, have hit Iran’s economy hard and led to widespread hardships.

A U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s most prominent military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq on Jan. 3. Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq, killing no one but causing brain injuries in over 100 soldiers.

Encouraging Iranians to vote, state TV aired footage of people lined up at polling stations set up mainly at mosques.

“I am here to vote. It is my duty to follow martyr Soleimani’s path,” said a young voter at a mosque at a cemetery, where Soleimani is buried in his hometown.

Soleimani, architect of Tehran’s overseas clandestine and military operations as head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was a national hero to many Iranians. He was Iran’s most powerful figure after Khamenei.

“Each vote put into the ballot box is a missile into the heart of America,” said Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace unit of the Revolutionary Guards.

Rouhani urged Iranians to “further disappoint the enemies” by voting in large numbers.

But weariness among women and the young, who comprise a majority of voters, about high unemployment and restrictions on social freedoms looked likely to depress the turnout.

LOWER TURNOUT LOOMS

Iranians who joined large protests in November called on their leaders to focus on improving the battered economy and tackling state corruption, also urging Khamenei to step down.

“I don’t care about this election. Moderates or hardliners, they are all alike. We are getting poorer with each passing day,” university student Pouriya, 24, said by telephone from the city of Isfahan. “I am leaving Iran soon. There are no jobs, no future for us.”

Iranian authorities forecast a turnout of about 50%, compared to 62% and 66% respectively in the 2016 and 2012 votes.

Iranians contacted by Reuters in several cities by telephone said turnout was low.

“In my area in central Tehran not many people are voting. There is one polling station just beside my house in Javadiyeh and only a handful of voters were there when I last checked an hour ago,” said sports teacher Amirhossein, 28.

With Iran facing deepening isolation on the global stage and discontent at home over economic privations, analysts described the election as a litmus test of the leaders’ handling of the political and economic crises.

Health ministry authorities advised voters not to be concerned about the threat of new coronavirus cases, as Tehran confirmed 13 new ones on Friday, two of whom have died.

“RELIGIOUS DUTY”

The slate of hardline candidates is dominated by acolytes of Khamenei, including former members of the Guards, who answer directly to the supreme leader, and their affiliated Basij militia, insiders and analysts say.

Former Guards commander Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf tops the parliamentary list of the main hardline coalition for Tehran’s 30 seats in the assembly.

Khamenei was the first to cast his ballot, saying voting is “a religious duty”.

The Guardian Council removed 6,850 moderates and leading conservatives from the field, citing various grounds for the rejections including “corruption and being unfaithful to Islam”.

That left voters with a choice mostly between hardline and low-key conservative candidates. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on members of the Council over the candidate bans.

Iran’s rulers have faced a legitimacy crisis since last year when protests over a fuel price hike turned political with demonstrators calling for “regime change”. The unrest was met with the bloodiest crackdown since the Islamic Revolution, with hundreds of protesters killed.

Many Iranians are also angry over the shooting-down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in error in January that killed all 176 people on board, mainly Iranians. After days of denials, Tehran said the Guards were to blame.

(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich)

Iran will back Palestinian armed groups as much as it can: leader

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will support Palestinian armed groups as much as it can, Iran’s Supreme Leader said on Wednesday, urging Palestinians to confront a U.S. plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“We believe that Palestinian armed organizations will stand and continue resistance and the Islamic Republic sees supporting Palestinian groups as its duty,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech, the text of which appeared on his website.

“So it will support them however it can and as much as it can and this support is the desire of the Islamic system and the Iranian nation.”

U.S. President Donald Trump announced a U.S. plan last month which would set up a Palestinian state with strict conditions but allow Israel to take over long-contested Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian leaders have rejected it as biased toward Israel.

Trump’s plan is to the detriment of America and Palestinians should confront the deal by forcing Israelis and Americans out through jihad, Khamenei said, according to his official website.

Tensions have spiked between Iran and the United States after top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3, prompting the Islamic Republic to retaliate with a missile attack against a U.S. base in Iraq days later.

Khamenei jabbed at Arab leaders who have supported the Trump plan.

“The welcoming and clapping from a few traitorous Arab leaders who are worthless and dishonorable among their own people has no importance,” Khamenei said, according to his official website.

Separately, Khamenei called for a high turnout in parliamentary elections on Feb. 21, broadly seen as a gauge of support for authorities after all-out war with the United States almost broke out last month.

“It’s possible that someone doesn’t like me but if they like Iran they must come to the ballot box,” Khamenei said, according to his official website, noting that the elections could help solve Iran’s international problems.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at hardliners over the mass disqualification of candidates for the election.

Iran’s economy has been battered after Trump pulled out of a multilateral nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic in 2018 and reimposed sanctions in a bid to bring Iran to the negotiating table for curbs on its ballistic missile program and to cut its support for regional proxies.

America’s attempt to pressure Iran to negotiate through sanctions will not work, Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state TV on Wednesday.

“They thought we would request negotiations from America. Negotiations by their definition, not our definition,” Rouhani said. “They want us to surrender through cruel, unequal and undignified negotiations. This is impossible for the Iranian people.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Alex Richardson, William Maclean)

Iran supreme leader ups ante in volatile stand-off with U.S.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves during ceremony attended by Iranian clerics in Tehran, Iran, July 16, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s supreme leader upped the ante in a volatile stand-off with the United States on Tuesday, warning Tehran would continue removing restraints on its nuclear program and retaliate for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker.

Tensions have spiked since U.S. President Donald Trump last year abandoned world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran under which it agreed to curtail its enrichment of uranium in return for the lifting of global sanctions crippling its economy.

European parties to the pact decided on Monday not to trigger the deal’s dispute mechanism in favor of pursuing more talks and avert any U.S.-Iranian military conflict, but took no action to shield Iran against a sanctions clampdown by Trump.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority, accused Britain, Germany and France of failing to uphold obligations under the deal to restore Iranian access to global trade, especially for Tehran’s oil exports blocked by U.S. sanctions.

“According to our foreign minister, Europe made 11 commitments, none of which they abided by. We abided by our commitments and even beyond them. Now that we’ve begun to reduce our commitments, they oppose it. How insolent! You didn’t abide by your commitments!” Khamenei said, according to his website.

“We have started to reduce our commitments and this trend shall continue,” Khamenei said in remarks carried by state television.

IRAN FUMES OVER EU INACTION

He has previously upbraided European powers for not standing up to Trump and circumventing his sanctions noose. Russia and China are also parties to the accord.

But it was the first time Khamenei explicitly pledged to press ahead with breaches of the nuclear deal, spurning European appeals to Iran to restore limits on enrichment aimed at obviating any dash to developing atomic bombs.

“So far, efforts to win gestures from Iran to de-escalate the crisis are not succeeding (as) Tehran is demanding the lifting of sanctions on its oil and banking sectors first,” a European diplomatic source told Reuters. 

Iran has long denied any intent to acquire nuclear weapons and has said all its breaches could be reversed if Washington returned to the deal and its economic dividends were realized. Tehran has accused Washington of waging “economic war”.

“Western governments’ major vice is their arrogance,” Khamenei said. “If the country opposing them is a weak one, their arrogance works. But if it’s a country that knows and stands up against them, they will be defeated.”

IAEA inspectors last week confirmed Iran is now enriching uranium to 4.5% fissile purity, above the 3.67% limit set by its deal, the second breach in as many weeks after Tehran exceeded limits on its stock of low-enriched uranium.

The level at which Iran is now refining uranium is still well below the 20% purity of enrichment Iran reached before the deal, and the 90% needed to yield bomb-grade nuclear fuel. Low-enriched uranium provides fuel for civilian power plants.

European Union foreign ministers, in a meeting on Monday, deemed Iran’s violations not to be “significant”, drawing Israeli accusations of appeasement recalling failed diplomacy with Nazi Germany in the run-up to World War Two.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Monday Iran remained “a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb”, adding there was still a “small window to keep the deal alive.”

The Europeans are trying to set up Instex, a barter-based trade conduit with Iran but it would initially deal only in items not subject to U.S. sanctions — such as pharmaceuticals and foods. Iran has said Instex must include oil sales or provide substantial credit facilities for it to be beneficial.

“PIRACY”

Khamenei also said Iran would respond to Britain’s “piracy” over the seizure in early July of an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar.

“Evil Britain commits piracy and steals our ship … and gives it a legal appearance. The Islamic Republic…will not leave this wickedness unanswered and will respond to it at an appropriate time and place,” he said.

Iran has called on Britain to immediately release the vessel, which was detained by British Royal Marines on the suspicion that it was breaking European sanctions by taking oil to Tehran’s close ally Syria.

Washington says it is applying “maximum pressure” on Iran to agree stricter limits on its nuclear capacity, curb its ballistic missile program and end support for proxy forces in a Middle East power struggle with U.S.-backed Gulf Arabs.

Fears of direct U.S.-Iranian conflict have risen since May with several attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, and a plan for U.S. airstrikes on Iran last month that Trump aborted at the last minute.

In what loomed as another obstacle to trouble-shooting diplomacy, Iran confirmed on Tuesday it had detained French-Iranian scholar Fariba Adelkhah but declined to elaborate, a day after Paris demanded information on her case.

Rights activists have accused Iran of arresting a number of dual nationals to try and extract concessions from the West – a charge the Islamic Republic has repeatedly dismissed.

Iran’s rial currency appears to have stabilized despite the brewing confrontation with the United States, gaining about 13% since early May after a 60% plunge last year.

Analysts said that not only was Iran’s forex market growing used to the tensions but the central bank had propped up the rial through injections of hard cash and steps to ensure the return of dollars earned from exports.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Trump imposes new U.S. sanctions on Iran, including supreme leader

U.S. President Donald Trump displays an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland and Stephen Kalin

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump imposed new U.S. sanctions on Iran on Monday following Tehran’s downing of an unmanned American drone and said the measures would target Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.

Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called “the hostile conduct of the regime.”

“Sanctions imposed through the executive order … will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader’s office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support,” Trump said.

The Trump administration wants to force Tehran to open talks on its nuclear and missile programs and its activities in the region.

Iran said on Monday U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, as Washington sought to rally support in the Middle East and Europe for a hardline stance that has brought it to the verge of conflict with its longtime foe.

Washington has blamed Tehran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf in recent weeks, which Iran denies. On Monday, the United States said it was building a coalition with allies to protect Gulf shipping lanes.

A coalition of nations would provide both material and financial contributions to the program, a senior U.S. State Department official said, without identifying the countries.

“It’s about proactive deterrence, because the Iranians just want to go out and do what they want to do and say hey we didn’t do it. We know what they’ve done,” the official told reporters, adding that the deterrents would include cameras, binoculars and ships.

The United States accuses Iran of encouraging allies in Yemen to attack Saudi targets.

In a joint statement on Monday, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Britain expressed concern over Middle East tensions and the dangers posed by Iranian “destabilizing activity” to peace and security in Yemen and the region.

The confrontation between Iran and the United States heated up last Thursday when Iran shot down an American drone, saying it had flown over its air space.

Washington, which said the drone was in international skies, then appeared to come close to attacking Iranian military targets, with Trump saying that he aborted a retaliatory air strike 10 minutes before it was to go ahead.

Trump said he decided the strike, to punish Iran for shooting down the drone, would have killed too many people.

U.S. media have reported that Washington launched cyber attacks last week even as Trump called off his air strike. The Washington Post said on Saturday that the cyber strikes, which had been planned previously, had disabled Iranian rocket launch systems. U.S. officials have declined to comment.

FEARS OF WAR

Iran dismissed the cyber attacks as a failure.

“They try hard, but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, said on Twitter.

“Media asked if the claimed cyber attacks against Iran are true,” he said. “Last year we neutralized 33 million attacks with the (national) firewall.”

Allies of the United States have been calling for steps to defuse the crisis, saying they fear a small mistake by either side could trigger war.

“We are very concerned. We don’t think either side wants a war, but we are very concerned that we could get into an accidental war and we are doing everything we can to ratchet things down,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East to discuss Iran with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf Arab allies that favor a hard line. Pompeo met King Salman as well as the king’s son, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, visited Oman and was headed to Europe to explain U.S. policy to allies. He told European reporters on a phone call ahead of his arrival that Trump was willing to sit down with Iran, but that Iran must do a deal before sanctions could be lifted.

CONCESSIONS

U.S.-Iran relations have deteriorated over the past year since the United States abandoned a 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

U.S. allies in Europe and Asia view Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal as a mistake that strengthens hardliners in Iran and weakens the pragmatic faction of President Hassan Rouhani.

France, Britain and Germany have sent an official diplomatic warning to Iran if Tehran reduces its compliance with the accord, two European diplomats said on Monday.

It was not immediately clear what consequences Iran might face for non-compliance.

Washington argues that the agreement known as the JCPOA, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, did not go far enough, and new sanctions are needed to force Iran back to the table to make more concessions.

Both sides have suggested they are willing to hold talks while demanding the other side move first. In the latest comment from Tehran, an adviser to Rouhani repeated a longstanding demand that Washington lift sanctions before any talks.

But the adviser, Hesameddin Ashena, also tweeted a rare suggestion that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the deal.

“If they want something beyond the JCPOA, they should offer something beyond the JCPOA; with international guarantees.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff and Grant McCool; Editing by Jon Boyle and Howard Goller)

Iran’s first president says Khomeini betrayed 1979 Islamic revolution

Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr attends an interview with Reuters in Versailles, near Paris, France, January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By John Irish and Michaela Cabrera

VERSAILLES, France (Reuters) – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini betrayed the principles of the Iranian revolution after sweeping to power in 1979, his first president told Reuters, leaving a “very bitter” taste among some of those who had returned with him to Tehran in triumph.

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, a sworn opponent of Tehran’s clerical rulers ever since being driven from office and fleeing abroad in 1981, recalled how 40 years ago in Paris, he had been convinced that the religious leader’s Islamic revolution would pave the way for democracy and human rights after the rule of the Shah.

“When we were in France everything we said to him he embraced and then announced it like Koranic verses without any hesitation,” Bani-Sadr, now 85, said in an interview at his home in Versailles, outside Paris, where he has lived since 1981.

“We were sure that a religious leader was committing himself and that all these principles would happen for the first time in our history,” he said.

Khomeini fled Iran in the mid-1960s, fearing a crackdown on his teachings by the Shah, eventually settling in a modest house in a village outside Paris from where he fomented unrest in Iran and nurtured the future Islamist revolution.

Bani-Sadr, son of a senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric and a former student of economics in Paris, had close family ties with Khomeini and helped him move to France after periods in Turkey and Iraq, becoming one of his closest aides.

“France was the crossroads of ideas and information, which is why he picked it after Kuwait refused to take him,” Bani-Sadr said. “When he was in France he was on the side of freedom. He was scared that the movement wouldn’t reach its conclusion and he’d be forced to stay there.”

MULLAHS

For Western observers, at least, Khomenei appeared to endorse a more modern interpretation of Islam in which religion and politics were kept separate and Iran would move away from the Shah’s dictatorship, Bani-Sadr said.

“It was when he came down the steps from the plane in Iran where he changed … The mullahs got a hold of him and gave him a new destiny, which is the dictatorship we see today,” he said.

Bani-Sadr was elected president on Feb. 5, 1980, in a popular vote, but under the new Islamic Republic’s constitution, Khomenei wielded the real power – a situation that has continued since his death in 1989 under his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Bani-Sadr recounted how he went to see Khomenei, now known as the Supreme Leader, in the city of Qom a few months after their return to bemoan pressure from religious authorities to force women to wear the veil. He said this went against promises he made in Paris that women should have a right to choose.

“(Khomeini) told me he had said things in France that were convenient, but that he was not locked into everything he had said there and that if he felt it necessary to say the opposite he would,” Bani-Sadr said.

“For me it was a very, very bitter moment.”

Despite such disappointment and his long exile, Bani-Sadr said he did not regret having been part of the revolution.

But he warned that U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to bring Tehran to heel through economic sanctions would backfire, hurting ordinary Iranians while reinforcing the existing system.

“If Mr. Trump left Iran alone, you’d see that the system is a lot more fragile than one imagines. We don’t need a new revolution,” he said.

(Writing by John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Iran’s supreme leader criticizes U.S. policies toward Tehran

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran, Iran, June 4, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lashed out on Sunday at U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and what he characterized as its hostility to the Islamic Republic.

“This inexperienced group has not recognized the people and leaders of Iran,” he said, according to the website for state TV. “When they get hit in the mouth, at that time they’ll know what’s going on.”

Khamenei and other senior Iranian officials have ramped up their criticism of the United States in recent weeks after Trump went on an official visit last month to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival.

During that visit, Trump singled out Iran as a key source of funding and support for militant groups. He has also criticized the nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers, including the United States, that led to the lifting of most sanctions against Iran, in return for curbs on its nuclear programme. Trump has said Washington would review the deal but stopped short of pledging to scrap it.

Iran and the United States cut diplomatic ties shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and enmity to Washington has long been a rallying point for hardline supporters of Khamenei in Iran.

Khamenei has accused the United States and its regional ally Saudi Arabia of funding hardline Sunni militants, including Islamic State, which carried out its first attack in Iran earlier this month, killing 17 people.

Riyadh has denied involvement in the suicide bombings and gun attacks on Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Khamenei said in his speech on Sunday that any efforts to destabilize the Islamic Republic would not succeed.

“In the past 38 years, when has there been a time when you haven’t wanted to change the Islamic system?” Khamenei said, according to Fars News. “Your head has hit the rock each time and always will.”

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Iran’s Supreme Leader warns against disrupting presidential vote

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Caren Firouz/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on Wednesday that any attempts to disrupt the presidential election on May 19 would be dealt with harshly.

The vote has shaped up to be primarily a contest between incumbent president Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who has campaigned on a platform of opening up the country to the West and easing social restrictions, and hardline rival Ebrahim Raisi, who served in top positions in the judiciary for years.

The election will be held as Rouhani, elected in a landslide in 2013, is coming to the end of his four-year term.

Raisi has the backing of Khamenei, according to analysts.

“If people participate with order, behave morally, observe legal and Islamic parameters then this will be a source of honor for the Islamic Republic,” Khamenei said, according to the transcript of a speech published on the Supreme Leader’s official website.

“But if they break the law, operate in an immoral way, or speak in a way that will encourage enemies, then the elections can be seen as a loss.”

Dozens of people were killed and hundreds arrested when widespread protests broke out after a disputed presidential election in 2009, which kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in office for a second term, according to human rights groups.

“The security of the country must be completely preserved during the election,” Khamenei said in the speech, which was delivered to an audience that included top commanders from the Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful military and economic force in the country.

“Anyone who deviates from this path should certainly know that they will be given a slap.”

SECOND TERM

Rouhani is standing for a second term against five other candidates, including his own vice president Ishaq Jahangiri, a moderate, and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a hardliner.

If nobody wins more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the first round on May 19, there will be a run-off a week later.

Raisi has harshly criticized Rouhani’s economic performance during live presidential debates in the past two weeks.

Khamenei is also unhappy with Rouhani’s economic performance and said the government should have done more to tackle unemployment.

Iran has an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent for a population of about 80 million, according to figures released by the Statistical Centre of Iran last autumn.

Rouhani, for his part, has indirectly criticized Raisi’s time at the judiciary.

“The people of Iran will announce in (the May election) that they don’t accept those who only knew executions and prison for 38 years,” Rouhani said Monday, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Ken Ferris)

Iran’s Ahmadinejad defies supreme leader to attempt comeback

Ex-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures as he submits his name for registration as a candidate in Iran's presidential election, in Tehran, Iran April 12, 2017.

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Hardline former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised Iran’s clerical establishment by registering for the May 19 presidential election, defying the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader’s warning not to enter the race.

Vilified in the West for his barbs against America and Israel and questioning of the Holocaust, the blacksmith’s son Ahmadinejad has upset predictions before by stealing the show in 2005 when he defeated powerful former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in a run-off vote.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei revealed last year that he had recommended to Ahmadinejad not to enter the contest. But after his registration on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad told journalists that Khamenei’s recommendation was “just advice”, Iranian media reported.

Khamenei praised Ahmadinejad as “courageous, wise and hard-working” after his re-election in 2009, which ignited an eight-month firestorm of street protests. His pro-reform rivals said that vote was rigged.

But throughout Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Khamenei was wary of him, and his insubordination and relentless self-aggrandisement rankled the hardline clergy.

Ahmadjinejad was required to step down because of term limit rules in 2013, when President Hassan Rouhani won in a landslide on a promise to reduce Iran’s international isolation.

After a term out of office, Ahmadinejad is now permitted to stand again under Iran’s constitution, but he still needs the approval of the 12-member Guardian Council which vets candidates, six members of which are appointed by Khamenei.

“His disqualification by the Guardian Council would show that the council is not independent and follows the orders of the supreme leader,” said political analyst Saeed Leylaz.

Khamenei’s backers accuse Ahmadinejad’s camp of pursuing an “Iranian” school of Islam, viewed as an inappropriate mix of religion and nationalism. Ahmadinejad may pay the price for disobeying Khamenei by running for president, analysts said.

“Khamenei will not forget this move, which was aimed to harm his image,” said political analyst Hamid Farahvashian.

In 2011, Khamenei was so annoyed by Ahmadinejad’s hunger for more power that he floated a proposal to change Iran’s constitution to do away with a directly elected presidency altogether, an idea Ahmadinejad briskly dismissed as “academic”.

“AN AFFRONT TO KHAMENEI”

Khamenei ultimately calls the shots in Iran, where the president can only influence policy, not decide it.

A former officer of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Ahmadinejad relies on Iran’s devout poor, who felt neglected by past governments and helped sweep him to power in 2005. However, his popularity in Iran remains in question.

“Ahmadinejad’s faction is still alive. He enjoys the support of the poor and lower-income in the cities,” said Leylaz.

Rouhani and his allies have criticized Ahmadinejad’s free-spending policies for fueling inflation and accuse him of wasting Iran’s oil revenues.

Ahmadinejad’s critics say his fiery anti-Western talk helped isolate Iran diplomatically. During his term, the U.N. Security Council imposed three sets of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

Rouhani, who engineered Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that secured a removal of international financial and trade sanctions against Tehran, is expected to seek re-election.

Although Rouhani won in a single round with more than 50 percent of the vote four years ago when no other candidate won more than 17 percent, he could face a more difficult campaign this time if hardliners unite against him. Many Iranians have grown impatient with the slow rate of improvement in their economic fortunes since the lifting of sanctions last year.

In a move to widen Ahmadinejad’s support, his senior aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie in May sent a conciliatory letter to Ahmadinejad’s predecessor as president, Mohammad Khatami, seen as the father of Iran’s reform movement.

Insiders said if disqualified, Ahmadinejad is likely to call on his supporters to back Rouhani, whose main rival is likely to be influential hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who declared his candidacy on Sunday.

“The irony is that by spoiling the conservatives’ game and taking away from Raisi’s voter-base, Ahmadinejad is in fact aiding Rouhani’s re-election,” said senior Iran analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group.

Raisi, 57, heads Astan Qods Razavi, an organization in charge of a multibillion-dollar religious foundation that manages donations to Iran’s holiest Shi’ite Muslim shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad.

“Ahmadinejad knows full well that his candidacy is an affront to Khamenei who had publicly barred him from running,” said Vaez. “Disqualifying Ahmadinejad is hard, but not impossible.”

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Peter Graff)