Iran's ayatollah threatens to withhold gas unless sanctions lifted

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Iran's supreme leader warns Tehran can play sanctions card by halting energy exports

Iran's supreme leader warned Wednesday that Western sanctions are unlikely to be lifted even in the event of a nuclear deal with six foreign powers because the West opposes the fundamental principles of the country's Islamic revolution.

In a speech to economists and officials from the western city of Tabriz, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast doubt on the likelihood of success in the decade-long negotiation over Iran's nuclear capabilities and threatened to play his own sanctions card if the restraints on the Iranian economy aren't lifted.

"The enemy is going to use the weapon of sanctions to the hilt because their goal is to stop the progress of our people," Khamenei was quoted as saying by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. "Even if we were to allow them to dictate to us on the nuclear issue, the sanctions will not be lifted because they are against the foundational principles of the revolution."

Iranian negotiators have been in intense talks with representatives of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany for more than a year in pursuit of an agreement that would lay to rest Western concerns that Tehran's nuclear industry development is aimed at giving the Shiite Islamic powerhouse atomic weapons capabilities. Iran insists its nuclear production is strictly for peaceful, civilian purposes.

The negotiations have been extended repeatedly over the last year as both sides have at times said an agreement was within reach. They now face a June 30 deadline for an accord, which Khamenei appeared to suggest wouldn't be met.

"If their intent is to retain sanctions, the Iranian nation can go that route as well," the supreme religious leader said in his address in Tehran. "Iran has the world's most gas and oil, and if need be Iran can hold back gas that Europe and the world is so dependent on."

There are disagreements about Iran's claims to have the largest oil and gas reserves, which depend in part on disputed offshore supplies that Saudi Arabia also claims. Even without those, however, it has what the United States calculates as the world's fourth-largest crude oil reserves and second largest natural gas deposits.

Khamenei earlier this month suggested he could "go along with the agreement in the making" at the negotiating forum known as the 5P+1 group, for the five permanent U.N. Security Council member states plus Germany. But in that Feb. 8 address to a military gathering he also hinted at Tehran's ability to retaliate in kind if an agreement failed to bring an end to the sanctions crippling Iran's economy.

Iranian conservatives said the ayatollah's stance in the nuclear talks is correct in seeing the negotiations as a forum in which the West, the United States in particular, is attempting to subjugate Iran.

"I see no point in continuing to negotiate. What the supreme leader is saying is not being heeded by the negotiation team," said former regime lawmaker Hoshang Tale. "If there is no promise to lift all sanctions in the event of a nuclear deal, why should Iran be negotiating? Even if there is a deal reached, there will be a big rift between the supreme leader and President [Hassan] Rouhani's negotiators, so the talks are a loss for Iran."

Others said Khamenei's comments were intended for his conservative audience.

"What he said today is for domestic consumption," and for the benefit of the regime officials and economists gathered in Tehran for a seminar on countering sanctions, said independent political analyst Nader Karimi Juni. "His speech cannot change the course of the ongoing nuclear talks and a deal will be reached ultimately."

Iran produces 2.7 million barrels of oil per day, mostly for domestic use. Likewise, more than 80% of its 600-million-cubic-meter output of natural gas is consumed by Iranians, although officials have said they intend to double gas output within two years.

Iran, the No. 4 oil-exporter among the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, remains too dependent on energy commodities to finance the government and social programs, the ayatollah said.

"The budget's dependence on oil must be cut and revenue reliance instead should be focused on the domestic economy, meaning national products, and taxes," Khamenei said. "Paying taxes is a duty. Today we tax the weakest, while many businessmen evade taxes. This is a crime."

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Williams from Los Angeles.

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