Updated at: 03/21/2014 10:26 AM
ALI AKBAR DAREINI
(AP) TEHRAN, Iran - TEHRAN, Iran (AP) â€” Iran's top leader said Friday that his nation can best counter Western sanctions by strengthening its economy and rallied Iranians to exert "extraordinary efforts" to take their country forward.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei' remarks came in his annual speech for the Persian New Year, Nowruz. Friday, the first day of spring, marks the beginning of the year 1393 on the Persian calendar.
Khamenei spoke in Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, and dedicated 1393 as the year of "economy and culture." Iranians, he said, should not wait for the sanctions to be lifted but work to build a stronger economy to "reduce vulnerability."
Iran has been hit hard by the international sanctions that were imposed over its controversial nuclear program, which the West fears masks efforts to acquire nuclear arms. Tehran denies it's trying to make nuclear weapons but has acknowledged the devastating impact the sanctions have had on its vital oil and financial sectors.
An interim nuclear deal reached in November with world powers has eased some sanctions, but the core remains in place â€” including measures targeting Iran's oil exports, the pillar of its economy.
Iran and the six world powers are now working on a comprehensive agreement envisaging long-term limits on the nuclear programs in exchange for an end to the sanctions.
Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters in Iran, has called the sanctions "a full-fledged economic war" on his country and last month ordered the government to create an "economy of resistance" to counter the measures.
The project involves efforts to diversify Iran's exports, reduce dependence on sales of raw materials and promote knowledge-based high-tech industries.
"If a nation is not strong, the world's extortionists will extort from it, insult it and if they can, they will trample on it," Khamenei said in his speech, broadcast live on state television. "If a nation doesn't become strong, it will be bullied by others."
Khamenei said the priority is for Iranians to make their economy immune to outside pressures. "There is need for extraordinary efforts to bring the country's economy into such a state that decision by others elsewhere in the world can't influence it."
"If we have a determined will and join hands, we can help our economy prosper," he said, urging Iranians to buy domestic products.
Waiting for "the enemy" to lift the sanctions is a road "to hell," he stressed â€” and Iranians need to "look to what we can do ourselves."
Khamenei has backed Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani, who took office last August, and his efforts to stabilize the national currency and halt inflation.
But Rouhani's government has a long way to go to deliver on promises of economic growth. As of the New Year, the government is to gradually phase out energy and food subsidies.
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