Iran's supreme leader accused President Barack Obama on Wednesday of following the same mistaken path as the Bush administration with his "unconditional" support of Israel — a negative sign for Obama's hope to improve relations with the Islamic state.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters in Iran, said Obama spoke of change during his campaign, but supported Israel's devastating three-week offensive against the Gaza Strip earlier this year that killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.
The offensive aimed at halting rocket fire from the militant Palestinian group Hamas started in late December before Obama took office. At the time, Obama mostly deferred to Bush when asked for his position, saying there could only be one U.S. president. But during the campaign, he spoke in strong support of Israel's right to defend itself from Palestinian attacks.
"The new U.S. president, who came to office on the slogan of bringing change in the policies of the Bush administration, speaks of unconditional commitment to defend Israel's security," Khamenei said Wednesday, addressing a conference on supporting the Palestinians in the Iranian capital Tehran.
"This means the same wrong path as the Bush administration and nothing less," he said.
Obama has said his administration is looking for opportunities to engage Iran to help reduce tensions between the two countries — particularly related to Iran's nuclear program — that increased during former President George W. Bush's time in office.
Khamenei's comments Wednesday highlighted how difficult it could be for the Obama administration to improve relations given the deep disagreements on both sides on issues like Israel and Iran's nuclear efforts.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Iran would welcome talks with the U.S. — but only if there was mutual respect. Iranian officials have said that means the U.S. needs to stop accusing Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism, charges Tehran has denied. Ahmadinejad has also said the U.S. must stop its strong support for Israel to the detriment of the Palestinians.
Those demands could help explain why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday in a visit to Jerusalem that Obama's attempts to reach out to Iran have so far been unsuccessful. She reassured her Israeli hosts that U.S. diplomacy should not be confused with softness, saying Washington remained committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and funding terrorism.
Iran does not recognize Israel and has called for its destruction. Khamenei on Wednesday called Israel a "cancerous tumor" that is on the verge of collapse.
He said Israeli leaders should be put on trial for the Gaza offensive, which ended with a shaky cease-fire in mid-January.
Iran's judiciary said Monday that it has asked Interpol to issue arrest warrants for 15 Israelis in connection with the Gaza offensive. Interpol denied receiving such a request.
Khamenei said Israel should allow all those living on Palestinian lands, including Muslims, Christians and Jews, to vote in a referendum to "choose the structure of their ruling system."