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Iran’s Khamenei defends military amid anger over downed plane

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Meng Tao/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for national unity and defended the country’s armed forces in the wake of angry protests over the downing of a Ukrainian passenger airliner by Iran’s air defenses last week.

In a sermon at Tehran’s Mosalla Mosque on January 17, Khamenei — the highest authority in Iran — said those who took to the streets had been victims of deception by foreign media and would not change the opinion of most Iranians.

“The Iranian people love and want resistance to the world powers and no capitulation,” the 80-year-old leader said as he addressed Friday Prayers for the first time in eight years.

Khamenei accused Iran’s enemies of using the plane crash to question the Islamic republic, the armed forces, including the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which he said “maintained the security” of Iran.

He also called Iran’s missile attack on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq earlier this month “a slap to a world power” and described U.S. President Donald Trump as a “clown” who only pretends to support the Iranian people.

The Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) Boeing 737-800 had just taken off from Tehran en route to Kyiv on January 8 when it crashed, killing all 176 people on board. Most of the victims were Iranian and Canadian nationals, with smaller numbers of Ukrainians, Afghans, Swedes, Britons, and Germans.

Iranian authorities initially denied any responsibility, but three days after the tragedy the IRGC admitted the plane was shot down “unintentionally.”

The tragedy occurred hours after Iran fired ballistic missiles at two bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq, in response to the targeted killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. air strike earlier this month.

Iran’s January 11 admission it had downed the Ukrainian plane led to days of protests in Tehran and other Iranian cities, with demonstrators chanting slogans against Iran’s clerical leadership.

Referring to Khamenei, mourners shouted “death to the dictator” as they buried victims of the plane disaster in the western Iranian city of Sanandaj on January 16, videos posted online showed.

In his sermon, Khamenei said the downing of the Ukrainian plane was a “bitter accident” that “burned through our heart.”

But he added that the tragedy should not overshadow the “great martyrdom and sacrifice” of Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s foreign-operations arm.

He also said Soleimani’s assassination had saddened Iran as much as it made its enemies happy.

But the supreme leader told thousands of Iranians who chanted “Death to America” that Western countries are too weak to “bring Iranians to their knees.”

Police were out in force ahead of the prayers, which follow several days of protests over the downing of the Ukrainian plane, AFP reported. It said authorities have called for rallies across the country after the prayers to show support for Iran’s armed forces and the IRGC.

Earlier this week, President Hassan Rohani called on the military to give a full account of how the plane was shot down.

Rohani also said the investigation should be overseen by a “special court,” insisting that all those responsible for the “unforgivable error” must be “punished.”

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledged that Iranians had been “lied to” for days, but claimed that he and Rohani only found out the truth concerning the cause of the disaster two days after the aircraft was shot down.

Iran’s judiciary has said several people had been arrested over the plane crash, as well as around 30 protesters.

Meanwhile, the five countries that lost citizens in the downing of the Ukrainian airliner have put pressure on Iranian authorities to give a full accounting of what happened.

After meeting in London on January 16, the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Britain, Canada, Sweden, and Ukraine demanded that Tehran hold a “thorough, independent, and transparent” investigation and pay compensation to the victims’ families, according to a statement issued by the Canadian government.

“The eyes of the international community are on Iran today,” Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said after the talks.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi responded on January 17 by calling on countries involved in the airliner crash “not to make human issues, particularly this tragic accident, into an excuse for political gestures,” according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

Musavi said Iran had cooperated “beyond expectations” with the countries, the report said.

In Kyiv, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko told parliament that an Iranian representative would travel to Ukraine next week. He said Tehran was willing to pass on to Ukraine the flight and cockpit recorders from the flight after they had been examined by a joint investigation team comprising experts from Iran, Canada, and Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the plane crash was a “very serious red flag” and a signal that everyone should “start working on de-escalation and not on constant threats.”

The Iranian leadership is also facing growing domestic and international pressure on other fronts: the country’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers appears close to collapse and its economy is struggling under crippling U.S. sanctions.

In his address, Khamenei lashed out at Britain, France, and Germany, which this week triggered a dispute mechanism for Tehran’s noncompliance with terms of the nuclear agreement, calling the European powers “servants” of the United States.

He also said Tehran was willing to negotiate, but not with Washington, which reinstated sanctions on Iran after unilaterally abandoning the accord in 2018. Trump wants Tehran to negotiate a new accord that would place indefinite curbs on its nuclear program and restrict Tehran’s ballistic-missile program.

The last time Khamenei delivered a Friday sermon in Tehran was in February 2012 on the 33rd anniversary of the country’s Islamic Revolution and at a time of crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.