Khamenei plays down protests, says Iran foes exploiting plane tragedy

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

TEHRAN — Iran's supreme leader said on Friday that demonstrations at home over the accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner were unrepresentative of the Iranian people and accused the country's enemies of exploiting it for propaganda purposes.

Leading the main weekly Muslim prayers in Tehran for the first time since 2012, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Jan. 8 downing was a "bitter" tragedy but should not be allowed to overshadow the "sacrifice" of one of Iran's most storied commanders, assassinated in a US drone strike in Baghdad.

His sermon came after a traumatic month for Iran in which the country had appeared on the brink of war with the United States before mistakenly shooting down the Ukrainian jet with the loss of all 176 people on board.

"The plane crash was a bitter accident, it burned through our heart," Khamenei said in an address punctuated by cries of "Death to America" from the congregation.

"But some tried to... portray it in a way to forget the great martyrdom and sacrifice" of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the assassinated head of the foreign operations arm of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards.

Khamenei said Iran's enemies had seized on the plane tragedy in a bid to undermine the Islamic republic.

"Our enemies were as happy about the plane crash as we were sad," he said.

"The spokesmen of the vicious American government keep repeating that we stand with the people of Iran. You're lying," Khamenei said.

"These American clowns that lie in utter viciousness that 'we are with the people of Iran'. See who the people of Iran are."

He also slammed the governments of Britain, France and Germany, which on Tuesday decided to trigger a dispute mechanism in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, following US threats to impose tariffs on European cars.

"It has been proven now, after about a year, that they are, in the true sense of the word, America's lackeys, and these cowardly governments are waiting for the Iranian nation to surrender," he said.

The air disaster triggered scattered protests in Tehran and other cities, but they appeared smaller than nationwide demonstrations in November in which Amnesty International said at least 300 people died.

On Friday, anti-riot police staged a massive deployment in Tehran, a correspondent said.

Khamenei said the protesters were unrepresentative of the Iranian people, 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 Gen. 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."

Thousands of worshipers crammed into the mosque and more spilled over onto the streets outside, kneeling in the snow.

Khamenei's sermon comes at a tumultuous moment for Iran, which had seemed headed for conflict earlier in January after Soleimani was killed on Jan. 3 outside Baghdad airport, prompting retaliatory strikes against Iraqi bases housing US troops.

Khamenei hailed the strikes as a "sign of divine help".

"It was a strike to their reputation, to America's might. This cannot be compensated by anything ... sanctions cannot return the lost prestige of America," he said.

The animosity between Washington and Tehran has soared since Trump unilaterally withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed biting sanctions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday urged a "de-escalation" of the tensions and an end to the "constant threats".

The plane tragedy "is a very serious red flag and signal to start working on de-escalation and not on constant threats and combat aviation flights in this region", Lavrov said.

In June 2019, Iran and the United States had also appeared to be on the brink of direct military confrontation after Tehran shot down a US drone it said had violated its airspace.

Trump said he called off retaliatory strikes at the last minute.

President Hassan Rohani said on Thursday that Iran was "working daily to prevent military confrontation or war", and maintained that a dialogue with the world was still "possible". — AFP