Iran's Khamenei stands by Guards after unrest over downed plane
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[January 18, 2020]
By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's supreme leader
threw his support behind the elite Revolutionary Guards in a rare sermon
on Friday after their belated admission that they had accidentally
downed an airliner triggered days of street protests.
In his first Friday prayers sermon for 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 U.S.
killing of a top Iranian commander.
U.S. President Donald Trump hit back later on Twitter, writing that
Khamenei should be careful what he says.
Khamenei's address came amid a deepening crisis for Iran as it grapples
with unrest at home and rising 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 U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan.
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 elite force and the clerical system it was set up to
"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
U.S. 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".
The U.S. State Department's special representative for Iran, Brian Hook,
said in Washington that Iranian threats risked further isolating the
But Russia lent Iran some support over the airliner disaster, saying it
had been shot down when Tehran was spooked by reports of advanced U.S.
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 Tehran 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
As the unrest picked up, Trump sent tweets in Farsi and English
supporting the protesters, who were chanting "Death to Khamenei" and
slogans against the Guards.
[to top of second column]
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers Friday prayers
sermon, in Tehran, Iran January 17, 2020. Official Khamenei
website/Handout via REUTERS
Khamenei said in his sermon: "These American clowns who lie and say
they are with the Iranian people should see who the Iranian people
Trump responded on Twitter: "The so-called 'Supreme Leader' of Iran,
who has not been so Supreme lately, had some nasty things to say
about the United States and Europe. Their economy is crashing, and
their people are suffering. He should be very careful with his
Khamenei said the shooting down of the plane was a "bitter tragedy
that burned through our heart," but stopped short of offering a
"Some tried to use it as an excuse to overshadow the martyrdom of
our great commander Soleimani," he said, urging Iranians to unite
and show solidarity by turning out in numbers for the February
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 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 were deployed in
force on the streets, particularly outside universities, a focus for
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 U.S. sanctions.
In reaction to Washington's "maximum pressure" policy, Tehran 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 U.N. sanctions.
"These European countries cannot be trusted. Even their negotiations
with Iran are full of deceit," Khamenei said.
(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh; Additional
reporting by Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Edmund Blair,
Gareth Jones and Daniel Wallis)
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