Iran's supreme leader on Thursday gave guarded support for continued negotiations over his nation's nuclear program, in a signal that could help shield the talks from the criticism of hard-liners in Tehran.
"I do not disagree with the extension of negotiations, as I have not disagreed with negotiations in the first place," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an address to the Basij militia group.
Negotiators for Iran and six world powers agreed Tuesday to extend the year-old talks for another seven months because they had failed to reach an agreement by a Nov. 24 deadline.
Khamenei gave no sign that he would support the kind of flexibility that may be needed to close a deal. He praised Iran's negotiating team because "they have been firm, have not caved in."
Earlier this week, Khamenei said the West had tried and failed to bring Iran "to its knees" with the talks, and insisted Tehran would stick to its demands that it be allowed to develop an industrial-scale nuclear program.
The seven counties have been seeking an accord that would lift sanctions on Iran if it agrees to restrictions aimed at prevent it from gaining a nuclear bomb-making capability.
Negotiators for the two sides said the talks had made progress in many areas. But they were unable to bridge gaps on two core issues: how much uranium enrichment capability Iran should retain and how quickly to remove international sanctions imposed on Tehran.
The failure of the negotiators to reach a deal has emboldened critics of the talks in both the United States and Iran. They have argued in both countries that failure so far to reach an agreement showed it was pointless to continue negotiations.
U.S. and Iranian officials declared at the talks' end on Tuesday that there had been new ideas that suggested progress was still possible, and that the negotiations might be wrapped up in a few months.
To date, Khamenei's role has been to set tough requirements for a deal. In July, he declared that Iran needed to be able to expand its uranium enrichment capability tenfold within the next seven years.
Khamenei lambasted the U.S. government as an unreliable negotiating partner that offered shifting statements, saying: "America is a chameleon; every day it says something new."
He said Iran would not be hurt if the talks failed.
"If the negotiations do not yield results," he said, "it is America that will be the loser."
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Iran and Times staff writer Richter from Washington.