Iran nuclear talks resume with Ayatollah Khamenei's blessing, and a warning over "red lines"

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to members of the paramilitary Basij force at the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 20, 2013. AP/Office of the Supreme Leader

GENEVA -- Ahead of a new round of Iran nuclear talks, the country's supreme leader voiced support on Wednesday for the negotiations, but he insisted there are limits to concessions that Iran will make in exchange for an easing of sanctions choking its economy.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave no further details in a speech to a paramilitary group aimed at both placating hardliners and showing his backing for the Iranian officials preparing to meet with international negotiators in Geneva later Wednesday. But his mention of Iran's "nuclear rights" was widely interpreted as a reference to uranium enrichment.

Western diplomats reported progress during a previous round of talks in Geneva, but that session ended without an agreement. They now hope to reach an accord that would halt Iran's nuclear efforts while negotiators pursue a more comprehensive agreement that would ensure that Tehran's program is solely for civilian purposes. Iran would get some sanctions relief under such a first-step deal, without any easing of the harshest measures -- those crippling its ability to sell oil, its main revenue maker.

On Wednesday, delegations arrived in Geneva for internal consultations ahead of a full round of talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations: the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif leaves his hotel before the start of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif leaves his hotel before the start of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva, Nov. 20, 2013.
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Iran has suggested it could curb its highest-known level of enrichment -- to 20 percent, which yields a product that can be easily enriched further to weapons-grade fissile material -- in a possible deal that could ease the U.S.-led economic sanctions.

But Iranian leaders have made clear that their country will not consider giving up its ability to make nuclear fuel -- the centerpiece of the talks since the same process used to make reactor stock can be used to make weapons-grade material.

Khamenei said he would not "interfere in the details of the talks," in a clear nod of support for the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, which has opened historic exchanges with the U.S. However, Khamenei also said the main goal is "stabilization of the rights of the Iranian nation, including nuclear rights."

"There are red lines. There are limits. These limits must be observed," the supreme leader told a gathering of the Basij force, which is controlled by Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard. "We have told the authorities, and they are required to observe the limits and should not fear the blusters of the enemies and opponents."

Khamenei also blasted what he called the U.S. government's "warmongering" policies, including threats of military action, and he said sanctions cannot force unwanted concessions by Iran. At the same time, Khamenei said that his country has "no animosity'" toward the American people and seeks "friendly" relations.

"Instead of using threats, go and repair your devastated economy so that your government is not shut down for 15 or 16 days," he said in a reference to the recent U.S. government closure amid a congressional budget standoff. "Go and pay your debts."

His complex message reflected Iran's internal divisions over the nuclear talks and outreach to the United States, which broke ties with Iran after hostage-takers stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran in 1979 the wake of the Islamic Revolution.

President Obama also faces opposition to a deal from Israel, Saudi Arabia and critics in the U.S. Congress, who say an envisaged first-step deal would give Iran too much in the way of sanctions relief for too little in the way of concessions. They argue that Iran can't be trusted. Mr. Obama and his national security team counter that the risk is worth taking because the alternative is a war no one wants.

Mr. Obama met Tuesday with several Senate leaders and appealed to them to hold off on any further sanctions against Iran while the sensitive talks in Geneva are ongoing.

After the meeting, however, a number of the senators, as well as some House leaders, expressed concern with the expected terms of the deal the P5+1 is negotiating with Iran.

"We feel strongly that any easing of sanctions along the lines that the P5+1 is reportedly considering should require Iran to roll back its nuclear program more significantly than now envisioned," a group of senators wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, which was publicly released after the White House meeting.

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