By Haleh Esfandiari
For the first time in eight years, Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally delivered the Friday prayer sermon in Tehran this week, at a moment of rising discontent and protests at home, and confrontation with the United States and fraying relations with European states abroad. Khamenei’s uncompromisingly harsh tone dashed any expectation he would seek to ease tensions abroad or address discontent and grievances at home.
His sermon came in the wake of the Trump Administration’s killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Qods Force and the architect of Iran’s expanding influence and militia forces in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; Iranian retaliation by missile strikes against two military bases in Iraq where American forces are housed; and the accidental downing last week of a Ukrainian passenger plane in which all 176 passengers and crew were killed.
The airline disaster, for which Iran initially denied any responsibility, led to widespread condemnation abroad and to serious protests and demonstrations at home by Iranians enraged by the needless death of dozens of young Iranians and others by the air arm of the Revolutionary Guard; by the evidence of government incompetence; and the government’s lies and deception immediately following the crash of the Ukrainian airliner. In slogans, demonstrators called on the Supreme Leader to resign, implicitly criticized the Revolutionary Guard for its role, and expressed their general discontent with the government.
Khamenei’s response in the face of these developments was once again to concede nothing. The Trump Administration justified the killing of Soleimani by labeling him a terrorist and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. Khamenei described him as a hero and cited the massive crowds that mourning his passing in Iran and Iraq as evidence not only of this popularity but also as a demonstration of God’s grace and power. The Iranian missile strike against the U.S. and military bases in Iraq “a blow to the dignity and awe of the U.S. as a superpower.”
Khamenei made no effort to maintain a modicum of goodwill with the European powers, who have tried to save the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers and from which President Trump withdrew. He described Britain, France, and Germany as America’s “footmen” for their recent decision (reportedly under U.S. pressure) to trigger a dispute resolution mechanism in the JCPOA, possibly triggering European sanctions for Iranian violation of the agreement; and he condemned them for supporting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and supplying him with fighter aircraft and chemical weapons.
More striking was Khamenei’s failure to address the grievances of the Iranian people who in demonstrations last week and last November voiced their frustration with high prices, joblessness, misgovernment and clerical rule in general and with Khamenei himself and with the careless downing of the Ukrainian aircraft. He expressed sympathy for the casualties of the crash 45 minutes into his sermon and only in passing. He condemned last week’s demonstrators as stooges of the U.S.; and made no reference to the evidence of deep public discontent. His comments could be construed as a green light to the security agencies to go after the protesters, as they have done in the past.
Haleh Esfandiari is the Director Emerita and current Public Policy Fellow of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.
Click here for Esfandiari’s full analysis.
The following are excerpts from the sermon as translated by the supreme leader’s English-language website.
Khamenei’s Friday Sermon
"The past two weeks were eventful and exceptional weeks. There were bitter and sweet events for the Iranian nation to take lessons from during these two weeks."
"What does “Allah’s Days” mean? It’s the day when one sees God's power in events. The day when 10s of millions in Iran and 100s of thousands in Iraq and other countries took to the streets to venerate Martyr Soleimani creating the world’s largest funeral. This is one of Allah’s Days."
"The day when IRGC's missiles demolished the U.S. military base in Iraq is also one of Allah's days. A nation having the spirit to slap a global, harassing, Arrogant Power in this way shows God's power and is one of Allah’s Days."
"After 41 years since the Islamic Revolution's victory, which power brought this unparalleled, massive crowd to the funeral of Martyr Soleimani? Who created these tears, love and enthusiasm? What factor could bring such a miracle other than God's power?"
"The shameless U.S. government was disgraced by calling Martyr Soleimani a terrorist when he was recognized by everyone as the most prominent and powerful commander in the fight against terrorism. Which other commander could do the great things he did?"
"The Zionist news empire tried to say our honorable General is a terrorist! The U.S. President and Secretary of State repeated this. God did the opposite of what they wanted. Not only in Iran but in various countries, people saluted this Martyr and burnt the Zionist and U.S. flags.
"The U.S. government killed Martyr Soleimani, not on the battlefield but thievishly and cowardly. This abased the United States. Before that, such assassinations were the Zionist regime's specialty. Now, the U.S. president says he assassinated Soleimani. God smacks some people to make them confess."
"The IRGC's powerful response in attacking a U.S. military base deserves reflection. It was a blow to the United States. It was an effective military strike. More important and greater than a military strike, it was a blow to the dignity and awe of the United States as a superpower."
"For years, the United States has been receiving blows from the Resistance in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. But, bombing a U.S. military base was greater than these since it defied the prestige and awe of the United States. They said they’ll intensify sanctions. This can't win back their dignity."
"The Qods Force is an entity with lofty, human goals. The Qods Force looks everywhere and at everyone with tolerance. They are combatants without borders who go wherever they are needed to protect the dignity of the oppressed. They make sacrifices to protect sanctities."
"The combatants in the Qods Force sacrifice their lives to assist the oppressed in the region. They help them to confront terrorism and Arrogance and push away the shadow of war, terror, and destruction from Iran and other countries."
"With their turnout in the 10s of millions for Martyr Soleimani's funeral, the Iranian nation showed they support resistance against the enemy’s aggression. These American clowns lie in utter viciousness that they stand with the Iranian people. See who the people of Iran are."
"Are the few hundred people who disrespected posters of Iran's honorable Martyr General Soleimani “the people of Iran"? Or, are the tens of millions attending his funeral the Iranian people?"
"The villainous U.S. government repeatedly says that they are standing by the Iranian people. They lie. If you are standing by the Iranian people, it is only to stab them in the heart with your venomous daggers. Of course, you have so far failed to do so, and you will certainly continue to fail."
"The threat of the French and German governments and the vicious British government to send Iran's case to the Security Council proved once again that they are the footmen of the United States. These 3 countries are the ones who helped Saddam as much as they could in his war against us."
"The German government provided Saddam with chemical weapons to target our cities and frontlines, and its effects are still with us. The French government provided Saddam with Super Étendards to attack our oil ships. The British government served Saddam in every way too. This is how they are."
"Even when these governments negotiate, their negotiations are mixed with deception. The same people who appear at the negotiating table - the same so-called “gentlemen” behind the table - are the same terrorists of the Baghdad airport. They just change clothes."
"What is our duty? The dear Iranian nation must become stronger. Power isn’t just military power. The country’s economy must be strengthened. Reliance on oil should stop. Scientific/technological growth should continue. The backing for all of these is the people’s presence."