Iran's Khamenei demands 'tolerance' for Rouhani policies

TEHRAN (AFP) - Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei renewed his confidence in President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday, demanding tolerance from opponents who have criticised him over talks with world powers on Tehran's controversial nuclear programme.

Mr Khamenei spoke after days of public spats between Mr Rouhani's government and hardline opponents and as Tehran held what it called a "satisfactory" round of talks with visiting United Nations inspectors.

The disputes have focused mostly on a deal struck with world powers in November that has put temporary curbs on Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for modest sanctions relief and the return of billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets.

Without touching directly on the nature of those disagreements, Khamenei said "critics must exercise tolerance when it comes to the government." "It has only been a few months since the government has taken the reign," Mr Khamenei told commanders of Iran's air force in remarks reported by one of his websites, leader.ir.

"The statesmen must be given time to push forward strongly with their plans," said the supreme leader, who has the final say on all key state affairs, including the nuclear dossier.

Since the deal, hardliners in Iran have not shied away from criticising the government and top nuclear negotiator and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

They argue that what Iran gained in the interim deal - meant to last six months and also buy time for diplomacy over a comprehensive accord - do not offset what it has compromised in its nuclear activities.

But Mr Rouhani insists that the deal is bringing down the sanctions regime and "chains strangling Iran's economy" - a main campaign promise of the self-proclaimed moderate, who took office in August.

Mr Khamenei himself has also hailed the deal as a victory for Iran, but remains sceptical of interaction with longtime foe the United States, a member of the so-called P5+1 group of world powers negotiating with Tehran.

Western powers and Israel suspect Iran's atomic work mask military objectives, despite repeated denials in Tehran.

The negotiations between Tehran and world powers will resume on Feb 18 to ultimately allay those concerns and remove sanctions on Iran.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, Iranian officials and inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency met for talks on allegations of past Iranian weapons work and on additional safeguards to allay international concerns over its nuclear ambitions.

Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said a morning session went satisfactorily, but did not provide details.

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