TEHRAN — Iran's supreme leader on Saturday publicly endorsed President Hassan Rouhani's efforts to reconcile with archenemy Washington, but indicated his displeasure with some events during Rouhani's high-profile visit late last month to the United Nations.
"We support the government's diplomatic drive, including the New York trip, because we trust the administration, which is dedicated to serving [the people], and we are optimistic about it," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at a ceremony here Saturday in a speech quoted by Iran's Press TV news service.
The comments from Iran's ultimate authority were viewed as an important sign that the nation's conservative leadership stood behind the new president's conciliatory approach, despite the deep misgivings of hard-liners in Iran.
However, Khamenei said, "Some of the things that happened during the New York trip were not appropriate, because we believe that the U.S. government is untrustworthy, arrogant and irrational, and one that reneges on its promises."
Iran's top leader did not specify what irked him, but observers said he was probably referring to the trip's defining moment: a dramatic telephone call from President Obama to Rouhani. The 15-minute chat was the highest-level contact between two nations since the 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed monarchy.
Rouhani promptly blogged news of the call on Twitter, generating headlines around the globe about a possible detente in long-acrimonious U.S.-Iranian relations.
The supreme leader's carefully chosen remarks Saturday, analysts said, probably reflect twin goals: to back the Iranian president while mollifying sectors of the country's power structure deeply suspicious of Washington, mistrustful of Rouhani and opposed to any move toward reconciliation.
"It is obvious that the supreme leader, on the whole, approves of President Rouhani's overtures to the West, but he must also satisfy his 'principalist' [hard-liner] constituency that Iran is not going to cave in," said Nader Karimi, chief editor of the World of Industry, a moderate newspaper geared to Iran's entrepreneurial sector.
Just as many U.S. lawmakers and officials are skeptical about any prospective rapprochement with Tehran, so are many conservatives in Iran dubious about a possible reconciliation with Washington. The hard-liners in both nations are widely seen as major obstacles to any significant thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Last week, the commander of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard, a mainstay of the nation's leadership hierarchy, called the Rouhani-Obama conversation premature. Upon his return to Tehran, Rouhani was met at the airport by both enthusiastic supporters and outraged critics. The latter pelted his motorcade with shoes and eggs and shouted "Death to the USA!"
Still, observers here said the supreme leader's remarks reflect a clear official stance in favor of Rouhani's policy of reconciliation, and a sharp turn from the polemical broadsides of his predecessor, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"The supreme leader is apparently not happy with the phone call between Rouhani and Obama, but in general he is pleased with the overtures of Rouhani," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former parliamentary vice president.
Rouhani, a cleric and longtime Islamic Republic insider, was elected in a surprise landslide victory in June with vows to improve Iran's stagnant economy, battered by Western-led sanctions tied to the nation's controversial nuclear program. Rouhani has pledged to do his utmost to reverse the sanctions regimen that has made it difficult for Iran to sell oil, its chief export, and severely restricted access to the international banking system.
Iran is scheduled to resume talks on the disputed nuclear issue with six world powers, including the United States, on Oct. 15 and 16 in Geneva.
Iran says its program is strictly for energy-generation and other peaceful purposes, but Washington suspects a hidden agenda to reach nuclear-weapons capability. Khamenei would have to approve any deal crafted by the new president's nuclear negotiating team.
In an interview with the Associated Press released Saturday, Obama said Iran is a year or more away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, an assessment that conflicts with Israeli estimates that Iran could build a bomb in a few months. Israeli officials have dismissed Rouhani's conciliatory gestures as public relations maneuvers.
In the AP interview, Obama said global powers must "test" whether Iran's new president is serious about resolving the nuclear issue. But the president said Washington would not accept a "bad deal" from Iran.
He has emphasized that all options, including a possible military attack targeting Iran's nuclear facilities, remain on the table, a stance that has drawn harsh condemnation in Iran.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.