Written by Farnaz Fassihi and Ben Hubbard
Iran’s supreme leader struck a defiant tone in a rare public sermon Friday, calling the United States an “arrogant power” and telling tens of thousands of chanting worshippers that God’s backing had allowed his country to “slap the face” of the United States.
In his first such address in eight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sought to rally supporters and undermine critics after weeks of turbulence in the Middle East that brought Iran and the United States to the brink of war and prompted street protests in Iran over the accidental downing of a civilian jetliner by Iranian forces.
Khamenei offered only scant condolences to the families who lost relatives in the crash and instead sought to project strength. He dismissed protesters as “stooges of the United States,” lauded Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s foreign operations chief who was killed in a US drone strike, and praised a retaliatory Iranian missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq.
“These two weeks were extraordinary and eventful. Bitter and sweet events. Lessons we learned. The Iranian people went through a lot,” he said. “We delivered a slap to US’s image as a superpower.”
He also dismissed “American clowns” who he said pretended to support Iran but want to stick their “poisoned dagger” into its back.
The event, choreographed to present an image of power and unity, skirted the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane on Jan. 8 by Iranian forces that killed all 176 people on board. A lone banner featuring an airplane hung between huge pictures of Soleimani.
The downing of the jet — followed by three days of denials by Iranian officials — spurred a new wave of protests across the country that Iranian security forces have sought to quell with bullets and tear gas.
On Friday, the Ukrainian foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said that an Iranian representative would travel to Ukraine next week and that Iran had agreed to hand over data and voice recorders from the downed plane after they had been examined by a team of experts from Canada, Iran and Ukraine.
Nearly 45 minutes into his sermon, Khamenei said his “heart burned” for the victims of the crash, but he quickly accused Iran’s enemies of seeking to capitalize on the tragedy to overshadow the killing of Soleimani and the missile strikes on two bases that housed US troops in Iraq.
“As much as we were sad about the crash, our enemy was happy about it,” he said. “They thought they found an excuse to undermine the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and our armed forces and question the Islamic Republic.”
Forgoing Tehran University, where Khamenei usually speaks, he appeared for communal Muslim prayers Friday at Tehran’s Grand Mosalla, a large complex used as a communal prayer center for Muslim holidays and as an arena for election campaigns.
Crowds streamed in several hours before his sermon began, including schoolchildren, government employees and worshippers from neighboring provinces who had been bused in from their local mosques.
The complex had been outfitted with political messages: US flags were spread on the floor in the entrances so that worshippers could tread on them. Uniformed soldiers handed out posters of Soleimani and red headbands with “God is Great” written in Arabic.
President Hassan Rouhani, who is seen as a moderate, was in the front row as Khamenei spoke. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also sat nearby, as did Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace forces who has said units under his command were responsible for shooting down the plane. Iranian lawmakers, politicians and other citizens have called for his resignation over the downing.
Large banners inside the complex featured the face of Soleimani and other men who were killed alongside him in U.S. drone strikes, ordered by Trump, near the Baghdad airport on Jan. 2. Other banners read “Death to America.”
Khamenei, 80, Iran’s top political and religious official, delivers Friday sermons only at times of serious crisis that require his intervention. His last such sermon was in 2012, during the Arab Spring uprisings in the region. He also spoke in 2009, during widespread protests in Iran contesting the results of a presidential election that became known as the Green Movement.
* In both instances, Khamenei reinforced the government’s hard line by ordering people off the streets.
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