Iran’s supreme leader says its missile attack on U.S. troops in Iraq earlier this month was a “blow to America’s image” as a superpower, as he led prayers in Tehran for the first time since 2012.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said America had “cowardly” killed the most effective commander in the fight against the Islamic State group when it killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad.
In response, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles targeting U.S. troops in Iraq, without causing serious injuries. As Iran’s Revolutionary Guard braced for an American counterattack that never came, it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian jetliner shortly after it took off from Tehran’s international airport, killing all 176 passengers on board, mostly Iranians.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held the country’s top office since 1989 and has the final say on all major decisions. The 80-year-old leader openly wept at the funeral of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and vowed “harsh retaliation” against the United States.
Authorities concealed their role in the tragedy for three days, initially blaming the crash on a technical problem. Their admission of responsibility triggered days of street protests, which security forces dispersed with live ammunition and tear gas.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have steadily escalated since President Donald 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.”