TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's supreme leader urged presidential candidates Tuesday not to make concessions to appease the West, an implied rebuke to several of the hopefuls running in June 14 elections who said that they would focus on improving the Islamic Republic's relations with other countries.
The comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, are a red line to candidates indicating how far they can go, and a reminder that the ruling clerics rather than the elected president determine all major policies.
"Some, following this incorrect analysis — that we should make concessions to the enemies to reduce their anger — have put their interests before the interests of the Iranian nation. This is wrong," Khamenei said during a televised speech marking the anniversary of the June 3, 1989, death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. He said candidates "must promise" to put Iran's interests before foreign interests.
Khamenei insists he remains neutral, yet has repeated similar messages that apparently reject any major concessions on Iran's nuclear ambition or support for key regional allies including Syria's Bashar Assad and the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon.
"The foreign media will soon begin to say that Khamenei prefers one of the candidates. This is wrong. I have no favorite candidate," he reiterated Tuesday.
He said any vote for any candidate will be a "vote for the Islamic Republic."
The establishment-friendly slate of eight candidates suggests the clerical system used its vetting powers to ensure a comfortable outcome rather than risk allowing reformists to regroup after a crackdown against the opposition that rose up after disputed 2009 elections that propelled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a second term. Under the law, he is barred from seeking another term.
Election overseers disqualified centrist ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad's protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from running.
All key decisions remain in the hands of Khamenei and the Islamic establishment, but the candidates have expressed varying views on other subjects, particularly economic woes that are blamed in part on international sanctions over the nuclear program. The U.S. and its allies accuse Tehran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, although Iran insists its intentions are peaceful.
Ali Akbar Velayati , a Khamenei foreign adviser now running for president, said Friday that Iran needs "reconciliation with the world" to solve problems including high unemployment and inflation.
Another candidate, centrist Hasan Rowhani, has also signaled that he would lessen rifts between Iran and the West over its disputed nuclear program.
Khamenei said that the "anger of enemies" stems from the Islamic Republic's very existence.
He said the economy is Iran's main problem, but suggested economic problems could be improved by reducing consumption and management. "If our nation can be powerful and reduce its consumption, if the next president can manage the economy, the enemy will be defenseless in its confrontation with the Iranian nation."
Iran is under international and the Western economic sanctions that hit its vital crude exports and its access to its revenue abroad. This has caused price hikes as well as sharp devaluation of the country's currency.
The country also is suffering over 30 percent inflation and 14 percent unemployment rates.
Khamenei said the "enemies of Iran" intend to make trouble during the elections by stirring unrest. A wave of protests followed Iran's disputed 2009 election.
All candidates as well as Rafsanjani and Mashaei were present at Khamenei's speech at the Ayatollah Khomeini's mausoleum with the exception of Rowhani, who was on a provincial visit.
Meanwhile, hard-line candidate Saeed Jalili was quoted by a semiofficial news agency as calling for the "100 percent enrichment" of youth, a possible reference to the process used to produce higher grade uranium that the West fears could be used for weapons. Iran says it needs enriched uranium for peaceful purposes.
"We have to move to a direction that our capacity to enrich the youth reaches 100 percent from 5 and 20 percent," Jalili, who was Iran's top nuclear negotiator, was quoted as saying.
The report did not elaborate on his vague comment and it was not reported by any other Iranian news outlet.
Jalili, who has used strongly worded language against the West in his campaign, did not mention the word "uranium" but has earlier said that uranium enrichment will continue regardless of who is elected president. Such key decisions fall under the authority of ruling clerics, not the president.