Iran’s supreme leader has given a rare sermon at Friday prayers in Tehran after weeks of turbulence, including the US killing of a top general, missile attacks on US military bases in Iraq and the accidental downing of an airliner that killed 176 people.
Striking a defiant tone, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Donald Trump was a “clown” who pretended to support the Iranian people but would push a poisonous dagger into their backs.
The mass public gatherings for funeral processions for the powerful General Qassem Sulemani showed the deep support of the people for the Islamic Republic, he added, and the Revolutionary Guards stood ready to take their fight beyond Iran’s borders.
The address came as the embattled regime reels from a wave of international condemnation and domestic criticism after admitting its forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane and then lied in a bid to cover up its role in the tragedy.
Scenes of mourning for Suleimani were followed by four days of protests over the plane disaster, when demonstrators chanted “Death to Khamenei” and “Clerics get lost”. The demonstrations were quickly dispersed by the authorities with live ammunition and tear gas.
In Friday’s sermon Khamenei focussed on national unity in the face of external enemies such as the US.
Trump’s “cowardly” killing of Suleimani had taken out the most effective commander in the battle against Islamic State, he said.
In response to the 3 January killing in Baghdad, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles targeting US troops in Iraq, without causing serious injuries. Khamenei said the strike had dealt a blow to America’s image as a superpower. In part of the sermon delivered in Arabic, he said the real punishment would be in forcing the US to withdraw from the Middle East.
As Iran’s Revolutionary Guards braced for an American counterattack that never came, it mistakenly shot down International Airlines Flight 752 shortly after it took off from Tehran’s international airport, killing all 176 passengers on board, mostly Iranians.
Khamenei called the downing of the plane a “bitter accident” that saddened Iran as much as it made its enemies happy. He said Iran’s enemies had seized on the crash to question the Islamic Republic, the Revolutionary Guards and the armed forces.
He also lashed out at western countries, saying they themselves were too weak to bring Iranians to their knees. The UK, France and Germany, which this week triggered a dispute mechanism to try to bring Iran back into compliance with the unravelling 2015 nuclear agreement, were contemptible governments and servants of the US, he said.
Iran was willing to negotiate, but not with the Washington, the supreme leader added.
Khamenei has held the country’s top office since 1989 and has the final say on all major decisions. The 80-year-old leader wept openly at a funeral ceremony for Suleimani in Tehran and vowed harsh retaliation against the US.
Thousands of people attended the Friday prayers, occasionally interrupting his speech by chanting “God is greatest” and “Death to America”.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have steadily escalated since Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which had imposed restrictions on its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
The US has since imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, including its vital oil and gas industry, pushing the country into an economic crisis that has ignited several waves of sporadic, leaderless protests. Trump has openly encouraged the protesters, even tweeting in Farsi, hoping that the protests and the sanctions will bring about fundamental change in a longtime adversary.
After Suleimani was killed, Iran announced it would no longer be bound by the limitations in the nuclear agreement. The dispute mechanism triggered by European signatories this week has been widely seen as the deal’s death knell and could result in even more sanctions.
Khamenei was always sceptical of the nuclear agreement, arguing that the US could not be trusted, but he allowed President Hassan Rouhani – a relative moderate – to conclude the agreement with Barack Obama. Since Trump’s withdrawal, he has repeatedly said there can be no negotiations with the US.
Khamenei last delivered a Friday sermon in February 2012, when he called Israel a cancerous tumour and vowed to support anyone confronting it. He also warned against any US strikes on Iran over its nuclear programme, saying the US would be damaged 10 times over.