Iran sends hardline message, defends adventurism abroad

Khamenei’s discourse is unlikely to quell popular unrest on the streets or end Tehran’s growing isolation internationally, observers said.
Sunday 19/01/2020
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a sermon during Friday prayers in Tehran, January 17. (AP)
Embattled. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a sermon during Friday prayers in Tehran, January 17. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Hardline messages delivered by Iran’s top leaders hint at continued policies of adventurism abroad but seem unlikely to quell popular unrest on the streets or end Tehran’s growing isolation internationally, observers said.

In his first Friday prayers sermon in eight years, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did not address attacks by demonstrators targeting him and the clerical establishment. He said Iran’s “enemies” — a term usually used to refer to the United States and its allies — tried to use the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to shift attention from the death of Qassem Soleimani, a key general, killed by the US military.

Authorities initially concealed their role in the airliner tragedy 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.

Khamenei called the shootdown of the plane a “bitter accident” but the 80-year-old cleric offered no apology.

Praising Soleimani, Khamenei defended the adventurist policies he carried out. He said his actions beyond Iran’s borders were in the service of the “security” of the country.

He added that al-Quds Force, the IRGC’s foreign intervention arm that was led by Soleimani, could take action against Iran’s adversaries abroad. Al-Quds Force, Khameini said, “protects people across the region”.  He added: “They are fighters without borders.”

He repeated Iran’s aim of driving the United States from the Middle East, calling US President Donald Trump “a clown.”

Omid Rezaee, an Iranian journalist in Germany, said Khamenei’s speech carried the expected hard-line message.

“I don’t think things will change after this sermon. Khamenei neither succeeded in boosting the morale of his supporters nor in scaring his opponents and critics.”

Khamenei’s speech indicated that the circle of the regime’s direct

enemies now includes not only Americans but also Europeans. He told thousands of Iranians who chanted “Death to America” that European countries could not be trusted after they initiated a nuclear agreement dispute mechanism.

On January 15, Iranian President Hassan Rohani had warned that European troops in the Middle East “may be in danger” after the dispute mechanism was triggered.

In recent demonstrations, Khamenei and the IRGC have come under unprecedented attacks showing they are not immune to the ire of the discontented public.

Protesters across Iran, furious over the downing of the plane and days of denial by the government, directed their fury at Khamenei. “Death to the dictator,” footage circulating on social media showed protesters shouting.

Video showed students chanting “Clerics get lost!” outside universities in Isfahan and Tehran. “They killed our elites and replaced them with clerics,” demonstrators chanted in Tehran, referring to Iranian students returning to Canada who were among those killed on the Ukrainian flight.

Rezaee said the downing of the Ukrainian plane had discredited the IRGC. The Tehran air disaster had shown “that they can’t even tell a missile from a passenger plane,” he said.

The IRGC was criticised and mocked by demonstrators, added Rezaee, who runs the news website perspective-iran.com. “This is something new for Iran,” he said.

Despite Khameini’s defence of adventurist and anti-Western goals, Iran’s latest showdown with the United States comes at a precarious time for authorities in Tehran and their allies across the Middle East, as sanctions imposed by Trump have caused deep harm to the Iranian economy.

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