Iran’s supreme leader, who’s known for his staunch opposition to talks with the United States on Iran’s nuclear program, said in a speech to mark the Persian New Year on March 21 that he’s not opposed to direct talks with Washington.
"I'm not optimistic about these talks, but I'm not opposed to them either," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said.
He added that talks would not yield results unless the United States stopped imposing sanctions against his country.
Analysts say the comments don’t necessarily signal any change in Khamenei’s hostility toward the United States, but rather suggest that crippling sanctions and domestic pressure are forcing him to demonstrate some openness to talks.
UN and other Western-led sanctions have been imposed on Iran over its disputed nuclear program, which Western countries believe is aimed at developing a bomb or the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. Tehran says all its nuclear activities are peaceful.
Iran is currently subject to a European Union oil embargo and financial sanctions that have made international business dealings extremely difficult. The sanctions are also having an effect on ordinary Iranians, who are experiencing higher food prices and shortages of medicine.
Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist with the RAND Corporation, says he doubts that Khamenei is willing to work with the United States. But he speculates that the supreme leader might feel pressure to demonstrate pragmatism to groups who support him.
"He is facing a lot of pressure within the political system to engage the United States, because sanctions are having a devastating effect on the economy and really hurting some of the key constituencies that enable Khamenei to rule -- whether it's the bazaar, the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards [Corps], or the clergy."
An internal debate has raged in Iran recently over whether to hold direct talks with the United States. Some officials have expressed their support, while hard-liners have rejected the idea.
The United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany have long negotiated with Iran through the so-called P5+1. The next round of their talks is scheduled for April 5-6 in Almaty.
In December, Iran’s ultrahard-line daily "Kayhan" -- said to reflect Khamenei’s views -- denounced figures within the Iranian establishment for pressing the leader to abandon his "revolutionary stances" and agree to negotiate with the United States.
In his March 21 speech to a crowd in the northeastern town of Mashhad, Khamenei said Washington must demonstrate that direct talks wouldn't be aimed at deceiving public opinion and imposing America's will on Iran.
"My take is that the Americans are not interested in seeing an end to the nuclear issue, they don't want the nuclear issue to be resolved. If they did, solutions are just around the corner," Khamenei said. "The only thing that Iran wants is to preserve its right to [uranium] enrichment, and we want the world to recognize this right for us."
Khamenei also acknowledged that sanctions have hurt the oil-dependent Iranian economy.
"We need to separate our economy from oil, and our governments need to incorporate this into their plans," he said, adding, "When a country's economy is reliant and dependent on one specific thing, enemies will also focus on that thing."
Israel has warned that it could take unilateral action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and Khamenei addressed that threat in his remarks by warning Israel that in the event of an attack, Tehran would "level [Israeli cities] Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground."
The rhetoric sounds familiar to Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group. Vaez says Khamenei has made similar threats of retaliation before and has expressed skepticism about the benefits of dialogue with Washington.
He called it "interesting" that Khamenei for the first time "does not completely shut the door on direct negotiations with the U.S."
Former Iranian diplomat Hossein Alizadeh thinks Khamenei is trying to get credit for offering to talk, even though he knows talks could fail. "Khamenei is telling his followers, 'As you see, I left the door for negotiations with the U.S. open but it fell on deaf ears on the American side,'" he says.
Alizadeh also believes Khamenei's speech was partly a reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama's Norouz message
. Obama said the Iranian people would benefit from a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis, which he said would allow Iran "greater trade and ties with other nations."
In his videotaped message, Obama expressed hope that the nuclear issue will be resolved diplomatically, and said he would "continue to work toward a new day between our nations that bears the fruit of friendship and peace."
Alizadeh said Khamenei is "trying to catch the attention of those Iranians who listened to Obama’s message" and tell them, "Don’t listen to the enemy."
A senior U.S. official traveling with Obama on his trip to Israel told AFP that Washington is committed to the P5+1 process but "would be open to bilateral discussions."
Khamenei, who has the last say in all state matters in Iran, said that thus far no one has negotiated with the United States on his behalf. He added that under various Iranian governments, negotiations were conducted with the U.S. on "topical subjects."
"Under those negotiations, the governments had to respect the leader's red lines. Today, also, those red lines have to be respected," he said without elaborating.
RFE/RL's Radio Farda broadcaster Babak Ghafouri contributed to this report