Supreme Leader Khamenei backs military in rare sermon after plane disaster, unrest

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leads the main weekly Muslim prayers in Teheran, on Jan 17, 2020.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leads the main weekly Muslim prayers in Teheran, on Jan 17, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI (REUTERS) - Iran’s supreme leader threw his support behind the elite Revolutionary Guards in a rare sermon on Friday (Jan 17) after their belated admission that they had accidentally downed an airliner triggered days of protests on the streets.

In his first Friday prayers sermon in eight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told worshippers chanting “Death to America” that the elite Guards could take their fight beyond Iran’s borders after the US killing of a top Iranian commander.

The address comes amid a deepening crisis for Iran as it grapples with unrest at home and mounting pressure from abroad.

Tension has steadily ratcheted higher since 2018, when the United States withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear pact with world powers and reimposed sanctions that have hammered the 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 US 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 force and the clerical system they were 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 Iran and renewing a call for US troops to leave the region.

Khamenei said Soleimani’s work of projecting Iran’s military influence abroad would continue and said the Quds Force he commanded “protects oppressed nations across the region.” 

He said Quds Force soldiers were “fighters without borders”.

Russia lent Iran some support on Friday over the airliner tragedy, saying it had been shot down when Teheran was spooked by reports of advanced US stealth fighters in the area.

“I’d like to underline the edginess that always accompanies such situations,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.


Protests, led by students, erupted in Teheran and other cities for four days over the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, in which all 176 aboard were killed, mostly Iranians or dual nationals.

As the unrest picked up, US President Donald Trump sent tweets in Farsi and English supporting the protesters, who 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 should see who the Iranian people are.”

“The plane crash was a bitter tragedy that burned through our heart,” Khamenei said. “But some tried to use it as an excuse to overshadow the martyrdom of our great commander Soleimani.” 


Stopping short of a direct apology for the plane disaster, he urged Iranians to unite and show solidarity by turning out in numbers for the February parliamentary election.

The funeral of Soleimani, long portrayed as a national hero in Iran but seen by the West as a ruthless adversary, had brought huge numbers of Iranian mourners to the streets.

On social media, some Iranians reacted angrily to Khamenei’s Friday 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 and recordings of gunshots. Riot police deployed in force on the streets, particularly outside universities.

Iran’s police denied firing at protesters.

Two months earlier, police launched a bloody crackdown on protests that erupted over sharp fuel price hikes, which added to the suffering of Iranians already hurt by US sanctions.

In reaction to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy, Teheran has gradually scaled back on commitments to the nuclear deal, including lifting limits on its uranium enrichment.

Britain, France and Germany, which have been trying to salvage the pact, have subsequently launched the deal’s dispute mechanism over Iran’s violations, starting a diplomatic process that could lead to reimposing UN sanctions.

“These European countries cannot be trusted. Even their negotiations with Iran are full of deceit,” Khamenei said.