TEHRAN -- Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday that Western accusations that Iran seeks nuclear weapons are a ``sheer lie," and he declared that attempts to punish Tehran would jeopardize the world's oil supply.
The implied threat was dismissed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said Iran was too dependent on oil revenues to disrupt the flow of crude. She also put Iran on notice that the incentives offered by the West to suspend its nuclear program are not open-ended, although she declined to say Tehran had a firm deadline to respond.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, made his comments in a speech broadcast live on state radio.
``If you make any mistake [punish or attack Iran], definitely shipment of energy from this region will be seriously jeopardized," Khamenei said, addressing Western nations.
Khamenei said the United States and its allies would be unable to secure oil shipments passing out of the Gulf through the strategic Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean. At its narrowest point, the strait separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula is 44 miles wide.
``You will never be able to protect the energy supply in this region," he said. ``You will not be able to do it."
Khamenei, however, did not specify how oil supplies would be disrupted, and he insisted to the assembled throng that Iran would not be ``the initiator of war."
In a television interview later yesterday, Rice sought to play down Khamenei's remarks. ``I think that we shouldn't place too much emphasis on a threat of this kind," she said on the ``Fox News Sunday" program. ``Obviously it would be a very serious problem for Iran if oil were to be disrupted on the market."
Last week, Rice said the United States was prepared to join the European Union and Germany in negotiations with Iran only if Tehran agreed to stop enriching uranium. The Western nations fear Iran is using what it calls a peaceful civilian nuclear program as a cover to build atomic weapons.
Khamenei said Iran was not a threat to any country.
``We have not threatened any neighbor," he said, calling the accusation that Iran is seeking an atom bomb ``a sheer lie."
``It's against Islamic teachings," he said.
However, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has questioned Israel's right to exist and said in October the Jewish state should be ``wiped off the map."
Khamenei's harsh rhetoric came a day after Ahmadinejad said a breakthrough in negotiations was possible. He welcomed the US offer to join talks, but rejected preconditions. Ahmadinejad attended Khamenei's speech yesterday.
Contrary to Khamenei's remarks, other Iranian officials have repeatedly ruled out using oil as a weapon. Iran is the world's fourth-largest oil exporter and has the second-largest reserves in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Iranian political analyst Saeed Leilaz said Khamenei's remarks were more important for what he did not say.
``He didn't close the door for dialogue or understanding with the US," Leilaz said. ``Khamenei even didn't close the door for the possibility of Iran suspending uranium enrichment. Iran is after maximum concessions from America."
Rajabali Mazrouei, a former reformist lawmaker and political analyst, said Iran would be unable to close the strait.
Mazrouei said Khamenei's comments should be assessed as part of the usual exchange of harsh rhetoric with the United States. ``Iran is in a position to temporarily disrupt oil shipments from the region, but it will not be in a position to close the Strait of Hormuz permanently," he said.
After months of threats and counter-threats, Washington said last week it was prepared to join talks with Iran if it stopped enriching uranium, which can produce fuel for electricity-generating reactors or, if sufficiently processed, the fissile core for a warhead. In conjunction with the US offer, the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany drew up an economic incentive package for Iran last week but made it conditional on an end to enrichment. Iran could face sanctions if it declines the package.
Ahmadinejad said the Iranians would study the offer but rejected preconditions.
Rice said the offer is not open-ended.
``I'm not one for timelines and specific schedules, but I think it's fair to say that we really do have to have this settled over a matter of weeks, not months," she said.