Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threw his support behind the elite Revolutionary Guards in a rare sermon Friday. After their belated admission that they had accidentally downed a Ukrainian 737 jetliner.
The downing triggered days of street protests, calling for the removal of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In his first Friday prayers sermon for eight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told worshipers chanting “Death to America” that the elite Guards could take their fight beyond Iran’s borders. After the U.S. killing of a top Iranian commander.
Khamenei’s address came amid a deepening crisis in Iran as it grapples with public unrest. Presure not just from home but also rising pressure from abroad.
Tension has steadily ratcheted higher since 2018, when the United States withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear pact with world powers. Reimposing tought sanctions that have hammered Iran’s economy.
The standoff erupted into tit-for-tat military strikes this month, when Washington killed top commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike on Jan. 3 and Iran launched missile strikes at U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan. 8.
In the tense aftermath, a Ukrainian airliner was shot down by mistake. But it took days for the Guards to admit this and protesters directed their rage at the elite force and the clerical system it was set up to defend.
“Our enemies … were happy that they found an excuse to undermine the Guards, the armed forces and our system,” Khamenei said in his sermon. Heaping praise on the Guards for protecting him and renewing a call for U.S. troops to leave the region.
Projecting Iran’s military influence abroad will continue
Khamenei said Soleimani’s work of projecting Iran’s military influence abroad would continue. He said the Quds Force he commanded “protects oppressed nations across the region.” He also said Quds Force soldiers were “fighters without borders”.
Meanwhile, Protests led by students erupted in Tehran and other cities for four days over the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. All 176 aboard were killed, mostly Iranians or dual nationals.
As the unrest picked up, Trump sent tweets in Farsi and English supporting the protesters. The protestors were chanting “Death to Khamenei” and slogans against the Guards.
Khamenei said in his sermon: “These American clowns who lie and say they are with the Iranian people. They should really see who the Iranian people are.”
President Trump hits back on Twitter
The so-called “Supreme Leader” of Iran, who has not been so Supreme lately, had some nasty things to say about the United States and Europe. Their economy is crashing, and their people are suffering. He should be very careful with his words!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 17, 2020
Trump responded on Twitter: “The so-called ‘Supreme Leader’ of Iran, who has not been so Supreme lately, had some nasty things to say about the United States and Europe.
Their economy is crashing, and their people are suffering. He should also be very careful with his words!”
Khamenei said the shooting down of the plane was a “bitter tragedy that burned through our hearts.” However he stopped short of offering a direct apology to his people or the Ukraine, Reuters reported.
“Some tried to use it as an excuse to overshadow the martyrdom of our great commander Soleimani,” he said. Urging Iranians to unite and show solidarity by turning out in numbers for the February parliamentary election.
On social media, some Iranians reacted angrily to Khamenei’s sermon and his comments on the plane disaster. “Not a word of apology. Only arrogance,” tweeted Mike Pouraryan.
Online footage during demonstrations had shown protesters being beaten, also with recordings of gunshots. Riot police were deployed in force on the streets, particularly outside universities, a focus for the unrest.
Iran’s police have also denied firing at protesters despite live postings on social media from Iran.