Iran is not opposed to direct talks with the U.S. to resolve its nuclear standoff with the West, the country's top leader said Thursday in comments that appeared to soften its long-held policy of outright rejection of bilateral talks with Washington.
Following that speech, a senior Obama administration official in Jerusalem told reporters the president "was open" to a direct dialogue with Iran, CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett reports.
But Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he's not optimistic that such talks would yield results unless Washington stops imposing sanctions against the Islamic Republic. His remarks came as President Obama visits Iran's archrival, Israel, which has repeatedly threatened to take military action should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a bomb.
Addressing a crowd in northeastern Iran on the first day of the new Persian calendar year, Khamenei also had a strong warning for Israel.
"Sometimes, leaders of the Zionist regime threaten us. They threaten to take military action. They are not in the size to be put in the list of Iranian nation's enemies," Khamenei said in comments broadcast live on state TV.
In a strong warning to Israel, Khamenei said that if Israel attacked Iran, Tehran would "level Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground."
The U.S. and Iran have conducted sidebar talks at meetings of the so-called P5+1 group of nations conducting long-running but so far fruitless talks with Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
"We would be open to bilateral discussions, provided Iran understood what our expectations are," the Obama administration official said. "We have a forum for diplomacy with Iran (the P5+1)."
Under pressure from the P5+1 group, the United Nations has approved a series of tighter economic sanctions against Iran. The sanctions are designed to coax Iran toward trading greater economic freedom for cessation of its feared pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration official told reporters the sanctions mean Iran "is facing significant economic consequences."
"The way out of that pressure," the official said "is negotiations."
The White House prefers the larger group of nations bringing pressure on Iran but is willing to entertain direct talks under the right circumstances.
Khamenei said the U.S. has sent messages to Tehran, sometimes in writing, saying it is willing to hold bilateral talks with Tehran separately from the negotiations Iran is holding with five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
"I'm not optimistic about these talks, but I'm not opposed to it either," he said.
In Jerusalem on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said he continues to prefer a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute with Iran and thinks there is time to achieve one. Whether that works, he said, will depend on whether Iran's leaders "seize that opportunity."
Although Mr. Obama did not promise that the United States would act militarily against Iran if Israel decided that must be done, he offered an explicit endorsement for Israel to take whatever unilateral measures it deems necessary to guard against the threat.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said both he and Mr. Obama agree that it would take Iran about a year to manufacture a nuclear weapon.