GENEVA: Iran's supreme leader voiced support Wednesday for the negotiations over his country's nuclear program, but insisted there are limits to the concessions Iran will make in exchange for an easing of the sanctions choking its economy.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also blasted Israel as being "the rabid dog" of the region, bent on besmirching Iran's reputation. French President Francois Hollande rejected those comments as "unacceptable," adding they only complicate the nuclear talks beginning later Wednesday in Geneva, spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said.
Khamenei, speaking before a paramilitary group in Tehran, aimed to placate hardliners and show his backing for the Iranian officials preparing to meet with international negotiators.
Vallaud-Belkacem told reporters in Paris that Hollande's Cabinet discussed Iran just hours before the nuclear talks were set to resume. Despite Hollande's displeasure over Khamenei's criticism of Israel, she said France still hopes for a deal and its position has not changed in the talks.
Western diplomats reported progress during a previous round of talks in Geneva. They now hope to reach an accord that would halt Iran's nuclear efforts while negotiators pursue a more comprehensive agreement that would ensure that Tehran's nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes. Iran would get some sanctions relief under such a first-step deal, without any easing of the most harsh measures - those crippling Iran's ability to sell oil, its main revenue maker.
Iran has suggested it could curb its highest-known level of uranium enrichment - at 20 percent - in a possible deal that could ease the U.S.-led economic sanctions.
But Iranian leaders have made clear that their country will not consider giving up its ability to make nuclear fuel - the centerpiece of the talks since the same process used to make reactor stock can be used to make weapons-grade material.
Khamenei said he would not "interfere in the details of the talks," - a clear nod of support for the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, which has opened historic exchanges with the U.S. However, Khamenei also said the main goal of the talks is the "stabilization of the rights of the Iranian nation, including nuclear rights."
"There are red lines. There are limits. These limits must be observed," the supreme leader told the Basij force, which is controlled by Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard. "We have told the authorities, and they are required to observe the limits and should not fear the blusters of the enemies and opponents."
Khamenei also blasted what he called the U.S. government's "warmongering" policies, including threats of military action, and he said sanctions cannot force unwanted concessions by Iran. At the same time, Khamenei said his country has "no animosity'" toward the American people and seeks "friendly" relations.
"Instead of using threats, go and repair your devastated economy so that your government is not shut down for 15 or 16 days," he said, referring to the recent U.S. government closure amid a congressional budget standoff. "Go and pay your debts."
His complex message reflected Iran's internal divisions over the nuclear talks and outreach to the United States, which broke ties with Iran after hostage-takers stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran in 1979 the wake of the Islamic Revolution.
President Barack Obama also faces opposition to a deal from Israel, Saudi Arabia and critics in the U.S. Congress, who say an first-step deal would give Iran too much in the way of sanctions relief for too little concessions. They also argue that Iran can't be trusted.
Obama and his national security team have countered that the risk is worth taking because the alternative is war no one wants.
On Wednesday, delegations arrived in Geneva for internal consultations ahead of a full round of talks between Iran and six nations: the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.