TEHRAN, (Reuters) – An influential Iranian cleric on Friday rejected U.S. President George W. Bush’s accusations that Iran was arming and funding Shi’ite militias in Iraq to kill American soldiers, state radio reported.
In a speech at the White House on Thursday, Bush repeated long-standing U.S. accusations against Iran and warned the Islamic republic to stop interfering in Iraq. He characterised Iran and al Qaeda as “two of the greatest threats to America.” “Iran has never interfered in Iraq … such claims are sheer lies made by Iraq’s occupiers to continue Iraq’s occupation,” Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a senior advisor to Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told worshippers in a Friday prayers sermon at Tehran University.
“Iran supports the establishment of peace, security and freedom in Iraq as well as the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq,” added Rafsanjani, also head of a powerful arbitrary body.
Bush, who has accused Iran of backing militant groups in southern Iraq and providing explosives to extremists in the country, said Tehran had to choose between peace or war.
“If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq. If Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners.”
Relations between Washington and Tehran have been hostile shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, when hardline Iranian students seized the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
The United States also is leading efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear programme, which the West fears is a cover to acquire nuclear bombs. Tehran says its atomic work is solely to generate electricity.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed three round of sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt its sensitive nuclear activities as demanded since 2006. But since the March U.N. sanctions resolution, Iran has refused to hold talks with the major powers to resolve the nuclear dispute, saying it would only discuss its nuclear programme with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
P5+1 powers want EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to meet Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to try to reopen talks on offers of incentives for Iran to halt its work. But Rafsanjani said Iran was ready to hold further talks with the West over its nuclear activities.
“I am repeating again here that it is useless to pressure Iran when we are ready to talk and provide evidence and documents about our nuclear work,” Rafsanjani said.
The five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany will meet on April 16 in Shanghai to discuss whether to sweeten incentives they had offered Iran in 2006 to curb its nuclear work. “There is no better way than resolving the issue through talks,” Rafsanjani in his sermon which was broadcast live.