TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's supreme leader and the country's president both warned America on Wednesday that the departure of President Donald Trump does not immediately mean better relations between the two nations.
The remarks come as Iran approaches the first anniversary of the U.S. drone strike that killed Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, an attack that nearly plunged Washington and Tehran into an open war after months of tensions. In recent weeks, a scientist who founded Iran's military nuclear program two decades ago was gunned down in an attack in a rural area outside of Tehran that The Associated Press accessed for the first time Wednesday.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke in Tehran at the Imam Khomeini Hosseinieh, or congregation hall, where he attended a meeting with Soleimani's family and top military leaders. They all sat some 5 meters (16 feet) away from the 81-year-old Khamenei, who wore a face mask due to the coronavirus pandemic still raging in Iran.
“You saw that what Trump’s America and (former President Barack) Obama’s America did to you,” Khamenei said. “The hostilities are not just for Trump’s America, which ends when he leaves. Obama’s America also did bad things to you and the Iranian nation.”
Earlier in the day, Rouhani, speaking during a Cabinet meeting, made a similar point to criticize Trump — at one point even saying the U.S. president “has committed so many crimes, he was an assassin and a terrorist.”
“Some people say, ‘You are excited for Mr. Biden,’" Rouhani said. "No, we are not excited Mr. Biden is taking office, but we are very happy Mr. Trump is gone.”
“The upcoming American administration can choose what to do,” Rouhani said. “The path is open. It’s up to them if they are grateful or ungrateful. If they want the right path, it’s ready. If they want the wrong path, that one is ready for them as well.”
Biden has suggested the U.S. could rejoin Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, from which Trump unilaterally pulled America in 2018 and imposed harsher sanctions on Iran. That decision marked the start of increased tensions between the two countries as Iran abandoned uranium enrichment limits and the Mideast saw a series of escalating incidents and attacks.
In response to Soleimani's death, Tehran launched a ballistic missile attack that injured dozens of U.S. troops in Iraq. That same night, it also mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board.
Hoping to pressure Europe, Iran's parliament recently passed a bill calling on Tehran to increase its uranium enrichment to 20%, a short technical step from weapons-grade levels, and to throw out international inspectors. Rouhani's government has opposed the bill, exposing a rift inside Iran's civilian government that the supreme leader appeared to touch on in his speech Wednesday.
“Resolve your disputes by negotiating with each other," Khamenei said. "Are you not saying that we should negotiate with the world, is it not possible to negotiate and resolve disputes with the internal element?”
That bill came after the Nov. 27 killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who headed Iran’s so-called AMAD project, which Israel and the West have alleged was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that “structured program” ended in 2003. U.S. intelligence agencies concurred with that assessment in a 2007 report and the State Department agreed with it as recently as last year.
Israel, suspected of carrying out Fakhrizadeh's slaying, insists Iran still maintains the ambition of developing nuclear weapons, pointing to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and research into other technologies. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
AP journalists accessed the site of Fakhrizadeh's killing for the first time on Wednesday just outside the town of Absard. Apple orchards line the road in front of the snowcapped Alborz mountain range. A new sign hung over a damaged electrical power pole where his bullet-riddled car came to rest, identifying it as “the site of ascension of martyred scientist ... to heaven.”
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.