By BRIAN MURPHY and NASSER KARIMI, Associated Press
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Tehran will retaliate against any attack by Israeli or American forces "on the same level," Iran's top leader said Tuesday in a defiant address just moments after U.S. President Barack Obama appealed directly to the Iranian people with a message of solidarity.
The contrasting approaches highlighted the broad range of political posturing and tactics as the standoff deepens over Tehran's nuclear program.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on state TV to mark the Iranian new year, repeated his claims that the country does not seek atomic weapons, but said all of Iran's conventional firepower was ready to respond to any attack.
"We do not have atomic weapons and we will not build one. But against an attack by enemies — to defend ourselves either against the U.S. or Zionist regime — we will attack them on the same level that they attack us," he said, using the term Iranian authorities often use for Israel.
Despite the hard-edged tone for most of the speech, there were hints of overtures toward America before a possible resumption of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers. He urged the U.S. to have a "respectful attitude" toward Iran — suggesting it could bring dividends.
Earlier this month, Khamenei gave a rare nod of approval to Washington after Obama said he favored diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute.
In a video message for the Iranian new year, known as Nowruz, Obama tried to reach out to the Iranian people, saying there was "no reason for the United States and Iran to be divided from one another." But he denounced Iranian authorities for setting up an "electronic curtain" that keeps Iranians from making their voices heard with American and the West.
"Increasingly, the Iranian people are denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want," Obama said after the U.S. Treasury Department opened the way for American companies to export Internet communications software and other materials to Iran.
"Instead, the Iranian government jams satellite signals to shut down television and radio broadcasts. It censors the Internet to control what the Iranian people can see and say. The regime monitors computers and cell phones for the sole purpose of protecting its own power," Obama added.
The U.S. president has used Nowruz for outreach to ordinary Iranians in the past, but it's unclear how many people are reached because of widespread Internet firewalls and efforts to block broadcasts such as Farsi language programs of the BBC and Voice of America. Still, satellite dishes are common — although illegal — and outside channels reach many Iranian homes.
The two nations are at odds because the West and its allies fear Iran could use its uranium enrichment program to eventually develop material for nuclear warheads. Iran says it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Obama has urged for more time to allow sanctions to cut deeper into Iran's economy, which has been hit by the latest pressures targeting oil exports and the ability to conduct international banking. Israeli officials have said there is no decision yet on whether to launch a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, but analysts in both countries have become increasingly nervous about the risks of touching off a region-wide war.
In response to tougher sanctions, Iran had threatened to try to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf — the route for about a fifth of the world's oil. However, Iran's military has made no actual moves to blockade the shipping lanes, and Kuwait's ruler was quoted Tuesday as saying Iran has assured its Gulf neighbors that it will not attempt to disrupt tanker traffic.
"We have received assurances from Iran that it will not take this step," Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah was quoted by the official Kuwait News Agency as saying. The agency said he made the statement to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun during a four-day state visit to Japan.
There was no immediate response from Iran.
But the emir said Kuwait is prepared to keep its oil customers supplied in the event of a disruption.
"For a long time, Kuwait has been working on providing a stockpile of oil through its global companies outside the Gulf region to ensure the constant supply to the countries importing the Kuwaiti oil," he was quoted as saying. He added that Kuwait was in touch with other Gulf countries "to face such a possibility."