A senior Iranian official has vowed to take revenge on Israel for its alleged involvement in the killing of a commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard.
The Guard has accused "mercenaries and supporters" of Israel for being responsible for Wednesday's killing of Gen. Hassan Shateri on the road linking Damascus to Beirut.
Ali Shirazi, representative of Iran's supreme leader to the Guard, says Israel will soon pay the price for Shateri's killing.
"Our enemies should also know that we will quickly get revenge for [the death of] Haj Hassan [Shateri] from the Israelis, and the enemies cannot shut off the Iranian people with such stupid acts [as the killing]," Shirazi was quoted by the Iranian Students News Agency Saturday.
Israel has not commented on the killing.
Iranian media say Shateri was in charge of reconstruction projects in southern Lebanon. It is unclear what he was doing in Syria, but Tehran is a close Syrian ally. It counts on Syria as a bridge to Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah terrorist group.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Shateri had been killed outside Iran by "Zionist agents," according to some Iranian news agencies. It quoted Iranian news site Balagh and a person with knowledge of the situation saying that Shateri had been killed in Syria, making him the highest-ranking Iranian official killed in Syria's uprising.
Meanwhile, major powers plan to offer to ease sanctions barring Iran from trading in gold and other precious metals in return for steps to shut down its newly expanded Fordo uranium enrichment plant, Western officials said on Friday.
The officials said the offer would be presented to Iran on Feb. 26 at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and they acknowledged that it represented a relatively modest update to proposals that the six major powers put forward last year.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials said their decision not to make a dramatically new offer in part reflected skepticism that Iran was ready to make a deal ahead of its June 14 presidential election.
The P5+1 group — Britain, China, France, Russia, the U.S. and Germany — wants Iran to do more to prove that its nuclear program is for only non-military purposes and to permit wider U.N. inspections.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Saturday that his country was not seeking nuclear weapons, but that if it intended to build them, the U.S. could not stop it.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, also rejected direct talks with the U.S. over the nuclear program, despite the pressure of sanctions.
"We believe nuclear weapons must be abolished and we have no intention of building" such weaponry, Khamenei said in remarks posted on his website, leader.ir. But he added: "If Iran had the intention to build nuclear weapons, the U.S. could in no way stop the Iranian nation."
He said Iran would hold talks with the U.S. if the latter respected Iran's rights instead of resorting to bullying.
"They want to deny the Iranian nation of its definite and inalienable right to uranium enrichment and peaceful use of nuclear energy. Of course, they won't succeed," Khamenei said.
Addressing a group of Iranians at his home in the capital, Tehran, Khamenei also scolded Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his conservative rivals for factional fighting, saying they should unite rather than quarrel at a time when the West was stepping up sanctions on Iran.
Earlier last week, U.S. President Barack Obama stressed that he wanted to resolve the dispute with Iran through diplomacy, but repeated a veiled military threat, saying, "We will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."
The core of the new offer revises last year's demand that Iran ceases producing higher-grade uranium, ship any stockpiles out of the country and close down its underground enrichment facility at Fordo.
"The next proposal is remarkably close to the old one," said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity, describing it as "a way to test whether they are serious or not."
"We don't think the Iranians have given us reason to do much more," he said. "It's basically an update ... so it does require a little bit more from Iran in terms of cooperation with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and at Fordo."
The Western officials declined to specify precisely how the U.S. and European Union might ease such sanctions.
It is unclear whether the Iranians would find such an offer appealing or even the basis for further talks, or whether they might hold out for a much more comprehensive offer that the P5+1 do not, at present, appear ready to put on the table.
"It's not the crown jewel," one Western official said of the sanctions relief now on offer.
The offer may also stir up opposition in the U.S. Congress, which passed sanctions that went into effect on Feb. 6 that tighten controls on sales of precious metals to Iran.
Bankers told Reuters in Istanbul that U.S. sanctions on gold are killing off Turkey's gold-for-gas trade with Iran and have stopped state-owned lender Halkbank from processing other nations' energy payments to the OPEC oil producer.
Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an advocate of harsh sanctions on Iran, said easing sanctions depended on Iranian behavior.
"I believe yielding on this sanction or any other sanction depends wholly on what the Iranians are willing to do," Menendez said. "If they are willing to perform concrete steps towards stopping and dismantling their nuclear weapons program, that's when we can consider easing some of our sanctions."
A Republican congressional aide said most members of his party would oppose sanctions relief until Iran met all its U.N. obligations and suggested Congress could strip the president of the flexibility, known in Washington jargon as "waiver authority," on whether or not to impose gold sanctions.
"While Congress gave the president a national security waiver, Congress can and should move to take it away in the next round of sanctions legislation if he intends to give the Iranians a pass in exchange for peanuts," he said.
According to the IAEA's November report, Iran has increased the number of centrifuges at Fordo, an underground plant that could be largely impervious to attack from the air, by 644 to 2,784 since mid-August.
In further defiance of international demands that it scale back uranium enrichment, Iran said last week that it was installing advanced enrichment machines at its main plant at Natanz, adding to Western worries it may be able to refine uranium even faster.
According to an IAEA report released in mid-November, Iran has a stockpile of 134.9 kilograms (297 pounds) of 20 percent enriched uranium, bringing it closer to the ability to produce the 90% uranium needed to provide fissile material for atomic bombs.