DUBAI Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Sunday Tehran would not negotiate about its disputed nuclear programme under pressure, but would talk to its adversaries if they stopped "pointing the gun".
In a speech to mark the 34th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, he struck a more conciliatory tone than Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who on February 7 rebuffed a U.S. call for direct negotiations between the two countries.
Ahmadinejad does not have the authority to authorise talks over the nuclear programme, which lies with Khamenei. Iran has already agreed to a new round of talks with world powers, but not direct U.S. talks, in Kazakhstan on February 26.
"You cannot point a gun at the Iranian nation and then expect them to have negotiations with you," Ahmadinejad told a crowd gathered in the capital Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square.
His speech was carried live on state television.
"Talks should not be used as a lever to impose one's opinions ... If you stop pointing the gun at the Iranian nation, I will negotiate (with you) myself," he added.
The United States and some of its allies suspect Iran may be trying to develop atomic weapons capability under the cover of a civilian nuclear energy programme, a charge Iran has denied.
Many experts believe any nuclear deal needs a U.S.-Iranian thaw and direct talks addressing myriad sources of mutual mistrust and hostility lingering since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
ENEMIES "WILL NOT SUCCEED"
Tehran wants sanctions lifted that have slashed oil exports and helped cut the value of the Iranian rial, raising inflation and weakening purchasing power for ordinary Iranians.
People held banners saying "Down With U.S.A." at state-organised demonstrations in Tehran and other cities to mark the anniversary of the ousting of a Western-friendly monarchy in favour of clerical leadership under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Ahmadinejad did not address specifics of the planned talks in Kazakhstan. He said Iran would counter sanctions by boosting non-oil exports and weaning itself off crude oil revenues.
"Enemies are trying their utmost to put pressure on the Iranian nation to stop its progress but they will not succeed," he said.
Khamenei on Thursday rejected a U.S. offer of direct talks, saying talks and pressure were incompatible.
He was believed to have been replying to remarks by Vice President Joe Biden, who said on February 2 the United States was ready for direct talks if Iran was serious about negotiations.
SHOW OF UNITY
The national celebrations are taking place a week after Ahmadinejad and his political rival, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, traded public accusations of corruption, an outbreak of infighting that is expected to grow more vicious as the country approaches presidential elections slated for June.
The parliament is dominated by a faction loyal to Khamenei and hostile to Ahmadinejad, who cannot stand for reelection.
Khamenei, Iran's unelected leader, has struggled to suppress rows among officials which have broken out into the open despite warning that such public spats were a betrayal of the country.
The last presidential election in 2009 set off mass protests at Ahmadinejad's victory, which opponents called fraudulent. Ahmadinejad is believed to have since lost Khamenei's backing.
In January, Khamenei's representative to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ali Saeedi, said it was part of the role of the Guards to "engineer" the elections.
Ahmadinejad, who is believed to want to maintain influence after stepping down, possibly by backing an ally as a candidate, appeared to warn against such efforts on Sunday.
"Some people say they want to engineer and manage the election," Ahmadinejad said. "The great Iranian nation knows which path to take ... some must not speak or act in such a way so as to play into the hands of Iran's deceitful enemies."
(Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati, Editing by William Maclean and Richard Meares)