Iran’s supreme leader called the accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner a “bitter” tragedy Friday but said it should not overshadow the “sacrifice” of a top commander killed in a US drone strike.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was giving the sermon at the main weekly Muslim prayers in Tehran, after a traumatic month in which the country had appeared on the brink of war with the United States and shot down the Ukrainian jet by mistake with the loss of all 176 people on board.
“The plane crash was a bitter accident, it burned through our heart,” Khamenei said in an address punctuated by cries of “Death to America” from the crowd.
“But some tried to… portray it in a way to forget the great martyrdom and sacrifice” of Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the foreign operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The last time Khamenei led Friday prayers at Tehran’s Mosalla mosque was in February 2012, on the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution and at a time of crisis over the Iran nuclear issue.
His latest appearance comes at a tumultuous moment for the country, which had seemed headed for conflict earlier in January after the drone strike killed Soleimani outside Baghdad airport, prompting retaliatory Iranian missile strikes against Iraqi bases housing US troops.
The strikes, which caused significant material damage, wounded 11 US troops, US Central Command said Thursday, contradicting previous reports from the military of no casualties.
The tensions between Washington and Tehran have abated since Iran’s admission it accidentally downed the Ukrainian airliner when it was on high alert after its retaliatory strikes against US targets in Iraq.
Most of those killed were Iranians and Canadians.
Khamenei accused Iran’s enemies of exploiting the tragedy for propaganda purposes.
“Our enemies were as happy about the plane crash as we were sad … happy that they found something to question the Guards, the armed forces, the system,” he said.
The air disaster triggered scattered protests in Tehran and other cities.
Praising Soleimani, 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? Or this million-strong crowd in the streets?” he said.
He appeared to be referring to the reported tearing down of a portrait of the general by protesters in Tehran just days after hundreds of thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral.
Police were out in force ahead of the prayers as they have been since several days of protests erupted over the downing of the airliner, news correspondents reported.
Authorities have called for rallies across Iran after the prayers.
They are intended to be a show of support for Iran’s armed forces and Revolutionary Guards.
Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne vowed Thursday to press Iran for answers about the tragedy.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously said US President Donald Trump’s policies contributed to the heightened tensions that led to the catastrophe.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged a “de-escalation” of tensions between Iran and the United States.
The plane tragedy “is a very serious red flag and signal to start working on de-escalation and not on constant threats and combat aviation flights in this region,” Lavrov said on Friday.
In June 2019, Iran and the United States had also appeared to be on the brink of direct military confrontation after Tehran shot down a US drone it said had violated its airspace.
Trump said he called off retaliatory strikes at the last minute.
The animosity between Washington and Tehran has increased since Trump unilaterally withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed biting sanctions.
In Iran, the air disaster sparked public outrage and anti-government demonstrations took place every day from Saturday to Wednesday.
A commemoration for the victims of the crash held in the city of Isfahan on Thursday turned into a protest, video footage posted on social media showed.
Concentrated in the capital, the protests appeared smaller than a nationwide wave of demonstrations prompted by a fuel price hike in November. At least 300 people died in a crackdown after those demonstrations, according to Amnesty International.
President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday implicitly acknowledged a crisis of confidence in authorities, but called for “national unity”, better governance and greater pluralism.
On Thursday, he stressed Iran was “working daily to prevent military confrontation or war”, and maintained that a dialogue with the world was still “possible”.