TEHRAN (Reuters) - Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will decide on Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the United States, irrespective of who wins this month’s presidential election, a senior official said Monday.
Hoping to win votes from both reformers and conservatives, rivals of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accuse the hardline president of isolating Iran with his fierce attacks on Washington and combative line on Iran’s nuclear policy.
Presidential media adviser Mehdi Kalhor told Reuters that only Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful figure, could decide on such major policies, suggesting they would not change even if a moderate were to win the June 12 vote.
“No one but the leader can decide about any move to renew ties with America and Iran’s nuclear work,” Kalhor said in an interview in his modest downtown office. “Such issues cannot be traded by any president.”
Kalhor, sporting a pony-tail, said it was Khamenei who ordered the removal of U.N. seals at Iran’s Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) in 2005, a step that led to the resumption of disputed uranium enrichment in 2006.
“No president can adopt a softer approach towards the West than (former president Mohammad) Khatami. The removal of seals took place under his presidency,” Kalhor said. “Because it was the leader’s decision, not Khatami’s.”
Khatami, whose policy has always been one of detente with the world, backs the candidacy of moderate former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi, who analysts say poses the main challenge to Ahmadinejad.
Mousavi says he will continue talks with major powers on the nuclear issue if he is elected president — contradicting Ahmadinejad, who has ruled out any nuclear talks with the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain.
Kalhor said Iran would never halt its peaceful nuclear activities, which the West fears are a cover to build an atomic bomb. Iran denies the charge.
“We cannot sacrifice something that belongs to the next generations. The idea of freeze-for-freeze is rejected,” he said, referring to the idea of suspending uranium enrichment in exchange for a suspension of international sanctions.
The moderate former parliamentary speaker, Mehdi Karoubi, and conservative former head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezai, are also running in the election. Khamenei, with millions of loyalists, has publicly praised Ahmadinejad.
President Barack Obama has offered a new U.S. approach to Iran, which has not had diplomatic relations with Washington for three decades, saying he would extend a hand of peace if the Islamic Republic would “unclench its fist.”
All four candidates, echoing Iran’s official stance, have demanded “practical” changes in U.S. policy before any direct negotiations, a rare opportunity to end a rift that began with the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.
Ahmadinejad swept to power in 2005 by pledging to close the gap between the wealthy and those struggling to make ends meet in the world’s fifth largest oil producer.
His critics agree the gap needs closing but say the government has used state largesse to “buy” support while ignoring the long-term damage caused by inflation.
“One of Ahmadinejad’s aims was to fill this gap. Justice means sharing everything, including wealth,” Kalhor said.
While complaints about inflation have grown louder, particularly in cities, anecdotal evidence suggests Ahmadinejad still has many supporters in the provinces, which he has regularly toured, promising new roads and other amenities.
“I personally may prefer Ahmadinejad not to win. Because I can not keep up with him,” Kalhor said jokingly.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan