DUBAI • Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a prayer sermon yesterday that Iran's missile strikes on US targets in Iraq showed it had divine support in delivering a "slap on the face" to a world power.
Making the main weekly sermon in Teheran for the first time since 2012, Ayatollah Khamenei added that US sanctions imposed in a row over its nuclear programme would not make Iran yield.
Thousands had gathered inside a large prayer hall in central Teheran and packed the area and streets outside the building, chanting "Death to America".
The sermon was delivered after Iran's rulers faced days of often violent protests in the wake of the military admitting to mistakenly shooting down an airliner in the tense hours after the missile strikes. The strikes had been launched in retaliation for the US killing on Jan 3 of a top Iranian commander close to Ayatollah Khamenei.
"The fact that Iran has the power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God," said Ayatollah Khamenei, adding that the killing of Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani showed Washington's "terrorist nature".
US President Donald Trump, who pulled Washington out of a nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and ratcheted up tensions by reimposing sanctions, had ordered the drone strike that killed Maj-Gen Soleimani, who built up proxy militias across the region.
After days of denying a role in the plane crash, the Revolutionary Guards, a parallel military force answering directly to Ayatollah Khamenei that acts as guardian of the Islamic republic, finally admitted on Jan 11 that one of its air defence operators mistakenly shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752.
Calling for a national unity in his first Friday prayer sermon in eight years, Ayatollah Khamenei said steps should be taken to prevent incidents like the "tragic" downing of the plane. While he called the incident a "bitter" tragedy, he said it should not overshadow the "sacrifice" of its top commander.
"The plane crash was a bitter accident; it burned through our heart. But some tried to portray it in a way to forget the great martyrdom and sacrifice" of Maj-Gen Soleimani.
"Our enemies were as happy about the plane crash as we were sad. (They are) happy they found something to question the Guards, the armed forces, the system."
The airline tragedy killed 176 people, most of them Iranians and Canadians.
Praising Maj-Gen Soleimani, Ayatollah Khamenei said his actions beyond Iran's borders were in the service of the "security" of the nation and that the people are in favour 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?" he said in an apparent reference to the reported tearing down of a portrait of the dead commander by protesters in Teheran.
Ayatollah Khamenei accused the US of "lying" in its expressions of support for the Iranian people. He said that even if they were with the people, "it is to stab them with their poison dagger".
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE