TEHRAN — As Iran and world powers sat down Wednesday for a fresh round of nuclear talks in Geneva, Iran's supreme leader warned that the Islamic Republic would not back down on its resolve to pursue nuclear energy.
"We do insist that we will not step back one iota from our rights," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at a nationally televised speech to members of the Basij force, an ultra-loyal paramilitary organization.
"The Iranian nation will not surrender under pressure from anyone," declared Khamenei, who vowed that Iranians would "slap the aggressors in the face in a way they will not forget."
Khamenei also expressed support for Iran's negotiating team in Geneva and the policies of President Hassan Rouhani, who has sought an easing of long-strained relations with the West since assuming office in August.
"I will not interfere in the details" of the nuclear negotiations, vowed Khamenei, the ultimate authority on matters of state, adding: "There are some red lines and limitations that will have to be heeded. We have said this to the officials and they are obliged to take notice of them. And they must not be afraid of enemies."
The supreme leader offered no specifics, but officials have previously said Tehran would not agree to abandon nuclear enrichment, a process used in both power generation and the production of weapons-grade material.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. U.S. officials suspect that Tehran is seeking the ability to build an atomic bomb.
Khamenei's speech seemed designed to reassure hard-liners in Iran leery of a deal with the West while also stressing his faith in the Iranian contingent in Geneva and Rouhani.
Both sides in the talks have expressed optimism about the possibility of an interim deal that could see Iran suspend some aspects of its nuclear program. In exchange, Iran would receive some limited relief from Western-led sanctions that have battered the nation's economy.
Iranian negotiators were meeting in Geneva on Wednesday with representatives of six world powers, including the United States.
During Wednesday's wide-ranging speech, Khamenei assailed what he called the United States' record of "inhumane deeds," highlighting various historical episodes, including the treatment of Native Americans, slavery and the World War II atomic bombing of Japan. He digressed for some time on the matter of slavery, recommending to his audience the book "Roots: The Saga of an American Family," the novel featuring Kunta Kinte, an African sold into slavery in the United States.
"A very useful book," the supreme leader said of the late Alex Haley's best-known work, later adapted into a television miniseries.
Despite his view of the United States, Khamenei asserted that Iran seeks "friendly relations with all nations, even the American nation."
From the seated militiamen and commanders came the iconic chant: "Death to America!"