Supreme leader gathers Iranians against the West, praises the attacks against the United States

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TEHRAN: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described the country’s attacks on US positions in Iraq as a blow to Washington’s honor, as he tried to gather popular support amid pressure on the demolition Accident of a Ukrainian passenger plane last week.

Addressing Friday’s prayers in Tehran for the first time in eight years, Iran’s top religious and political authority praised Iran’s missile attacks in response to the selective assassination by the United States of the country’s most prominent military commander.

“They said the sanctions will increase. But that cannot bring back the lost face of the United States, “Khamenei said, referring to the Trump administration movement to extend sanctions against Iran after the attacks.

Iran has faced almost two weeks of turbulence since the assassination in the United States of Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani on January 3.

In response to his death, Iran launched attacks against US forces stationed in Iraqi bases. That same night, while the Iranian army was on high alert for a US response to those attacks, a junior officer of his Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane and killed the 176 people on board, the Iranian army said.

The recognition that the plane had been shot down, which came after days of denials by Iranian officials, sparked protests in Tehran and other cities.

On Friday, Khamenei dismissed those protests and accused the country’s enemies of trying to use the plane’s demolition to overshadow public pain in Iran over the assassination of General Soleimani.

“As much as we grieved over the plane crash and sadness fell on our hearts, the enemy was glad for that,” Khamenei said at the Mosalla Mosque in Tehran, in a sermon broadcast live on state television.

The turmoil adds to the already intense economic pressure on Iran over US sanctions that have damaged its economy and helped spur widespread protests. Meanwhile, the murder of General Soleimani, who led the foreign wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has dealt a blow to Iran’s army.

Mr. Khamenei, 80, rarely appears in the Friday prayer sermon, but has done so during past crises. The last time Khamenei directed a sermon on Friday was in February 2012 when Iran faced international challenges over its nuclear program. He also directed the prayer in 2009 during the mass uprising known as the Green Movement, following claims that the presidential elections had been manipulated.

The images of a human rights advocacy group seemed to show police firing tear gas at demonstrators in Tehran. WSJ’s Sune Rasmussen explains why some Iranians took to the streets after the military admitted to having shot down a passenger plane by mistake. Photo: Associated Press

The election of the supreme leader to lead the prayer on Friday indicates how seriously he sees the current challenge for the establishment.

The Islamic Republic has survived the last 40 years by joining its leadership when faced with internal opposition and foreign threats, and Khamenei sought to show that the clerical establishment still has broad public support.

After Friday’s prayer, state television showed demonstrations in dozens of cities across the country in support of Mr. Khamenei against the United States.

Mr. Khamenei dismissed the recent protests, during which General Soleimani’s images were disfigured, as actions of a small minority.

“Are those few hundred who insulted our martyr general the image of the Iranian people? Or are the millions who go out to show themselves? ”In support of General Soleimani, Khamenei asked.

After the death of General Soleimani, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to mourn the general. Mr. Khamenei cried openly at the funeral ceremony of General Soleimani in Tehran.

These public demonstrations of national unity dissipated in the days after the plane was shot down.

Friday’s prayer was an attempt to rekindle the support behind clerical leadership. State television on Friday morning showed bus lines with people waiting to attend the prayers.

“The blood in our veins is a gift for our leader,” the faithful sang in the Mosalla Mosque, where Mr. Khamenei spoke. “Free spirit leader, we are ready, ready.”

American flags had been painted on the streets of Tehran for people to step on.

Iran’s leadership is dealing with economic difficulties, exacerbated by U.S. sanctions imposed after the Trump administration in 2018 withdrew from the 2015 international nuclear agreement. Washington’s sanctions are intended to force Iran to negotiate a more comprehensive nuclear agreement. and reduce its military footprint in the Middle East.

Earlier this week, Iran said it would prosecute those responsible for the murder of General Soleimani in national and Iraqi courts and in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Khamenei also said that the European countries that are part of the 2015 nuclear agreement could not be trusted, after they decided earlier this week to activate a dispute resolution mechanism in the agreement, which could eventually lead to the reimposition of sanctions Internationals on Tehran.

“Their negotiation comes with deception and deception,” Khamenei said of the United Kingdom, France and Germany. “It is clear that they are literally American lackeys.”

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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