TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's supreme leader on Wednesday criticized what he called President Barack Obama's "unconditional" support for Israel, saying he was following the same mistaken policies as the Bush administration.
The comments from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, underscored the difficulties Obama faces as he seeks to improve relations with Iran given the deep disagreements on both sides on issues like Israel and Iran's nuclear program.
Khamenei said Obama spoke of change during his campaign but supported Israel's devastating three-week offensive against the Gaza Strip earlier this year that killed some 1,300 Palestinians.
The offensive aimed at halting rocket fire from the militant Palestinian group Hamas started in late December before Obama took office. At the time, Obama mostly deferred to then-President George W. Bush when asked for his position, saying there could only be one U.S. president. But during the campaign, he spoke in strong support of Israel's right to defend itself from Palestinian attacks.
"The new U.S. president, who came to office on the slogan of bringing change in the policies of the Bush administration, speaks of unconditional commitment to defend Israel's security," Khamenei said Wednesday, addressing a conference on supporting the Palestinians in the Iranian capital, Tehran.
"This means the same wrong path as the Bush administration and nothing less," he said.
Obama has said his administration is looking for opportunities to engage Iran to help reduce tensions between the two countries that increased during Bush's time in office.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Iran would welcome talks with the U.S. _ but only if there was mutual respect. Iranian officials have said that means the U.S. needs to stop accusing Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism, charges Tehran has denied.
On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad urged the United States to change its "satanic" ways if it is serious about wanting change.
"Change means giving up your satanic, coercive and aggressive ways and instead adopting more human morals. ... If you accept this invitation, it will be to the benefit of yourself and your nation," Ahmadinejad told a crowd in northwestern Iran. He did not mention Obama by name but was referring to the new president's administration.
Those demands could help explain why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday in a visit to Jerusalem that Obama's attempts to reach out to Iran have so far been unsuccessful. She reassured her Israeli hosts that U.S. diplomacy should not be confused with softness, saying Washington remained committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and funding terrorism.
Iran does not recognize Israel and has called for its destruction. Khamenei called Israel a "cancerous tumor" Wednesday that is on the verge of collapse.