Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has firmly defended his country's missile programme in the face of rising concerns among members of the UN Security Council.
The 76-year-old ayatollah, who is also the country's commander-in-chief, said in a speech on Wednesday that Tehran would lose its leverage in negotiations with the world's major powers if it were to abandon its missile programme. ''These are times of both missiles and negotiations,'' he said.
''If the Islamic establishment seeks technology and negotiations but does not have defensive power, it will have to back down in the face of any petty country that threatens it,'' Khamenei said, according to the state-run Press TV.
Khamenei, who has the final word on all state matters, was speaking to religious eulogists in Tehran a day after it emerged that the US and its European allies in the Security Council have written a joint letter warning that recent missile tests by Iran were in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution adopting last year's nuclear agreement.
The letter, which claimed that Iranian missiles were ''inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons'', was carefully drafted and did not say that the tests violated the accord itself, which would have serious implications on its implementation. Russia has disagreed with fundamental outlines of the letter.
Earlier in March, the elite Revolutionary Guards claimed to have successfully tested two ballistic missiles, Qadr-H and Qadr-F, during large-scale drills. The Fars news agency, which is affiliated to the guards, said the missiles carried a message in Hebrew written on them: ''Israel must vanish from the page of time.''
Iran maintains that its missile programme is developed for defensive purposes and has nothing to do with its nuclear programme. The issue was not included as part of the two-year negotiations that led to the nuclear agreement signed last July in Vienna and was therefore expected to remain a bone of contention despite progress on the nuclear front. The US last week imposed new sanctions on two Iranian groups believed to have contributed to the country's missile programme.
From the beginning of the nuclear talks, Tehran resisted efforts by the West to include the missile programme as part of the negotiations, saying that the matter was military-related and outside the jurisdiction of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Rift with Rafsanjani?
In his Wednesday speech, Khamenei also reprimanded internal critics. ''That they say the future of the world is one of negotiation and not one of missiles,'' the ayatollah said. ''If that is said out of ignorance, well it is ignorance, but if it's said knowingly, it is treason.''
He was invoking, almost word for word, a recent tweet by Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the country's expediency council, who had said that ''the future of the world is one of dialogue, not missiles''.
The two ayatollahs have been at odds in recent years over many domestic and foreign issues. Rafsanjani was not allowed to run for the presidency in 2013 and one of his sons, Mehdi, is serving a jail term for corruption. Rafsanjani, however, came at the top of the list of winners in recent elections for the assembly of experts, which is in charge of appointing the next supreme leader.
''The Islamic Republic must use all tools,'' Khamenei said. ''I am not opposed to political dialogue, not with everyone of course. I am fine with political dialogue on the level of global issues. These are times of both missiles and negotiations.''
Khamenei is ostensibly unhappy with the outcomes so far of Iranian sanctions being lifted as the result of the nuclear deal. Big European banks, in particular, are still reluctant to handle Iranian payments due to existing US non-nuclear sanctions relating to terrorism.
''Negotiations should be carried out in such a way that we do not get cheated,'' Khamenei said. ''That we negotiate, put things on paper, but sanctions don't get removed and trade doesn't get going is a sign that something is wrong.''