Iran‘s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called Donald Trump a ‘clown’ today as he delivered Friday prayers for the first time in eight years.
The 80-year-old leader said the US president only pretends to support the Iranian people and would ‘push a poisonous dagger’ into the nation’s back.
Khamenei took the high profile sermon in Tehran for the first time since 2012 to throw his support behind the elite Revolutionary Guards after they belatedly admitted downing an airliner by mistake, sparking days of protests.
Referring to Trump tweets in support of the protesters, Khamenei said: ‘These American clowns who lie and say they are with the Iranian people should see who the Iranian people are.’
Thousands gathered to watch the sermon and occasionally interrupted his speech with chants of ‘God is greatest!’ and ‘Death to America!’
Khamenei said the Americans had ‘cowardly’ killed the most effective commander in the fight against Islamic State when General Qassem Soleimani was hit by a drone strike and had revealed their ‘terrorist nature.’
And he said that Iran’s missile attacks on US bases in retaliation had been a ‘day of God’ and had dealt a ‘blow to America’s image’ as a superpower.
He said: ‘The fact that Iran has the power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God.’
Khamenei said the outpouring of grief at the general’s funeral showed that Iranians still support the Islamic Republic, despite street protests against the regime after the Ukrainian passenger jet was downed by mistake, killing all 176 passengers on board, mostly Iranians.
Their admission of responsibility after three days of denials triggered days of street protests which security forces dispersed with live ammunition and tear gas.
Khamenei called the shooting down of the plane a ‘bitter accident’ that saddened Iran as much as it made its enemies happy.
He said: ‘The plane crash was a bitter accident, it burned through our heart.’
The Ayatollah has held the country’s top office since 1989 and has the final say on all major decisions. He openly wept at Soleimani’s funeral and vowed ‘harsh retaliation’ against the United States although its subsequent air strikes were largely ineffective.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have steadily escalated since President Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which had imposed restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
The White House has since imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, including its vital oil and gas industry, pushing the country into an economic crisis that has ignited several waves of sporadic, leaderless protests. Trump has openly encouraged the protesters – even tweeting in Farsi – hoping that the protests and the sanctions will bring about fundamental change in a longtime adversary.
After Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, Iran announced it would no longer be bound by the limitations in the nuclear agreement.
European countries who have been trying to salvage the deal responded earlier this week by invoking a dispute mechanism that is aimed at bringing Iran back into compliance and could result in even more sanctions.
Khamenei was always skeptical of the nuclear agreement, arguing that the United States could not be trusted. But he allowed President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, to conclude the agreement with President Barack Obama.
Since Trump’s withdrawal, he has said there can be no negotiations with the United States.
Khamenei last delivered a Friday sermon in February 2012, when he called Israel a ‘cancerous tumor’ and vowed to support anyone confronting it.
He also warned against any U.S. strikes on Iran over its nuclear program, saying the U.S. would be damaged ’10 times over.’
State television showed queues of buses that were taking people to attend the ceremony in central Tehran. The prayers usually take place around midday on Friday in Iran.
Vigils for the 176 victims swiftly turned into protests against Iran’s rulers. ‘Death to Khamenei’ was chanted at protests and also spray painted on walls of Tehran and other cities. Such public criticism can result in a jail term in Iran.
The demonstrations, mainly led by students, were quelled by a violent police crackdown and the deployment in force of riot police outside universities. Protesters were beaten and video footage recorded gunshots, teargas and blood on the streets.
Iran’s police denied firing at protesters and said officers had been ordered to show restraint. Police had launched a bloody crackdown two months ago on demonstrations that were sparked by a fuel price hike.
Unrest at home has added to international pressure on Iran over the plane disaster and its nuclear programme, which is at the heart of a long-running row between Tehran and the West.
Under Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear work in return for sanctions relief.
Washington reimposed sanctions after it withdrew from the pact, plunging Iran’s oil-dependent economy into crisis. Since then, Tehran has scaled back on its commitments, including saying it would stop observing limits on uranium enrichment.
Britain, France and Germany have subsequently launched a dispute mechanism in the deal, triggering a diplomatic process that could lead to the reimposition of U.N. sanctions.
Iran’s government has sought to galvanise loyalists at home. A state-sponsored body has called for rallies on Friday to show support for the leadership and to commemorate ‘martyrs’ of the plane disaster, Iranian media has reported.
The authorities have also sought to refocus public attention on the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander killed in the U.S. drone strike. Soleimani had built up proxy militias abroad, creating an arc of Iranian influence across the Middle East.
President Hassan Rouhani’s adviser Hesameddin Ashena said on Twitter that: ‘All those who were chanting ‘I am Qassem Soleimani’ come and fill his empty space on Friday.’
Soleimani’s funeral had drawn huge crowds onto the streets of Iranian cities, which the authorities said showed support for Iran’s leadership despite U.S. attacks, although those scenes were swiftly overshadowed by protests on the streets.