TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s supreme leader said US President Donald Trump is a “clown” who only pretends to support the Iranian people, as he addressed Friday prayers In Tehran for the first time since 2012.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Trump will “push a poisonous dagger” into the nation’s back. He said the outpouring of grief at the funeral for Iran’s top general, who was killed in a US airstrike earlier this month, shows that Iranians support the Islamic Republic.
Khamenei said America had “cowardly” killed the most effective commander in the fight against the Islamic State group when it killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the deputy commander of the extraterritorial Quds Force, in a US airstrike in Baghdad.
In response, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles targeting US troops in Iraq, without causing serious injuries. Khamenei said the missile attack was 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.
In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, worshipers chant slogans during Friday prayers ceremony, as a banner show Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, left, and Iraqi Shiite senior militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone attack on Jan. 3, and a banner which reads in Persian: ‘Death To America,’ at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
As Iran’s Revolutionary Guard braced for an American counterattack that never came, it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian jetliner shortly after it took off from Tehran’s international airport, killing all 176 passengers on board, mostly Iranians.
Khamenei called the shoot-down of the plane a “bitter accident” that saddened Iran as much as it made its enemies happy. He said it should not overshadow Soleimani’s “sacrifice” for the country.
He said Iran’s enemies had seized on the crash to question the Islamic Republic, the Revolutionary Guard and the armed forces. “Our enemies were as happy about the plane crash as we were sad … happy that they found something to question the Guards, the armed forces, the system,” he said.
A bulldozer seen working as rescue workers search the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Khamenei said the Quds Force, which supports terror groups in the region including Hezbollah and Hamas, “should be considered a humanitarian organization… its members are fighters without borders.”
He also lashed out at Western countries, saying they are too weak to “bring Iranians to their knees.” He said Britain, France and Germany, which this week triggered a dispute mechanism to try and bring Iran back into compliance with the unraveling 2015 nuclear agreement, were “contemptible” governments and “servants” of the United States.
He said Iran was willing to negotiate, but not with the United States.
Thousands of people attended the Friday prayers, occasionally interrupting his speech by chanting “God is greatest!” and “Death to America!”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held the country’s top office since 1989 and has the final say on all major decisions. The 80-year-old leader openly wept at the funeral of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and vowed “harsh retaliation” against the United States.
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to worshippers prior to deliver his sermon in the Friday prayers at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
Authorities concealed their role in the tragedy for three days, initially blaming the crash on a technical problem. Their admission of responsibility triggered days of street protests, which security forces dispersed with live ammunition and tear gas.
Khamenei said the protesters were unrepresentative of the Iranian people as a whole, who had turned out in their hundreds of thousands for Soleimani’s funeral.
Praising the slain general, Khamenei said his actions beyond Iran’s borders were in the service of the “security” of the nation and that the people are in favor of “firmness” and “resistance” in the face of enemies.
“The few hundred who insulted the picture of General Soleimani, are they the people of Iran, or this million-strong crowd in the streets?” he asked.
Khamenei appeared to be referring to the reported tearing down of a portrait of Soleimani by protesters in Tehran just days after mass funeral processions for the general.
It was the likes of Soleimani, not the protesters, who had devoted their lives to Iran, Khamenei said. “Not only did the deceived ones… not give their lives for Iran, but they did not sacrifice one of their interests for their country.”
Khamenei was speaking opposite a huge portrait of Soleimani hung behind the congregation. Thousands of worshippers crammed into the mosque and more spilt over onto the streets outside, kneeling in the snow.
Police were out in force as they have been since the protests erupted over the downing of the airliner, AFP correspondents reported.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have steadily escalated since President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which had imposed restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
Iranians walk past a poster of slain military commander Qassem Soleimani off a main square in the Islamic Republic’s capital Tehran on January 11, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
The White House 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 Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad, Iran announced it would no longer be bound by the limitations in the nuclear agreement. European countries who have been trying to salvage the deal responded earlier this week by invoking a dispute mechanism that is aimed at bringing Iran back into compliance and could result in even more sanctions.
Iranian students gather for a demonstration over the downing of a Ukrainian airliner at Tehran University on January 14, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
Khamenei was always skeptical of the nuclear agreement, arguing that the United States could not be trusted. But he allowed President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, to conclude the agreement with President Barack Obama. Since Trump’s withdrawal, he has said there can be no negotiations with the United States.
Khamenei last delivered a Friday sermon in February 2012, when he called Israel a “cancerous tumor” and vowed to support anyone confronting it. He also warned against any US strikes on Iran over its nuclear program, saying the US would be damaged “10 times over.”