Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls Trump a 'clown,' defends Iran's military

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called President Donald Trump a "clown" as he defended Iran's military after it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, in a relatively rare public address that came as he led Friday prayers in Tehran.

The last time Khamenei delivered a sermon to a crowd during Friday prayers was in 2012, on the 33rd anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution. The supreme leader called for "national unity" and described Iran's accidental downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flights 752 as a "bitter" tragedy, but one that should not overshadow the "sacrifice" of one of its top commanders, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq days earlier.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corp shot down Ukraine's jetliner just hours after Iranian missiles targeted U.S. forces on two bases in Iraq, which was retaliation for the Trump administration's killing of Iran's Gen. Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad on Jan. 3.

All 176 passengers and crew aboard Ukraine's commercial plane were killed. No one died in Iran's strikes on U.S. troops in Iraq. However, the Pentagon said late Thursday at least 11 Americans were injured. Trump said in an address to the nation on Jan. 8 that "no Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime. We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases."

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In his address Friday, Khamenei lashed out at Trump and the U.S., calling Soleimani's killing a "cowardly act" while Iran's response had "dealt a blow to America's image" as a great power. He reiterated his vow to force U.S. troops out of the region. About 62,000 American military personnel are spread across the broader Middle East on land and sea from airfields in Turkey to a large naval base in the Gulf state of Bahrain.

Iranian authorities initially denied shooting down Ukraine's plane, but later did an about-face after mounting international pressure. Earlier in the week, Iran announced it had made arrests in connection with the incident, but provided no further details.

Middle East tensions: Iran claims revenge for Soleimani. U.S. Navy is still a target

A senior Iranian air force commander previously publicly acknowledged that a member of Iran's military under his command fired a missile at the plane thinking the country was under attack from U.S. forces after the strike in Iraq. Amirali Hajizadeh said at a briefing in Tehran on Jan. 11 that the man who fired the missile had just 10 seconds to make a decision. "Unfortunately, he made a bad decision," the aerospace division chief said.

In Washington, the State Department announced yet another step in its campaign to squeeze Iran economically and politically. Brian Hook, the special representative for Iran, said the U.S. would blacklist a top Iranian general who he accused of overseeing a massacre that killed more than 100 Iranian protesters last fall.

Hook said the Iranian general “oversaw the massacre of 148 helpless Iranians in the Mahshahr region” of Iran in November. The New York Times reported that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps surrounded the demonstrators in a marsh and gunned them down.

Hook said the State Department was able to verify the account through videos and other information submitted through a tip line the agency set up when the regime began cracking down on protests last year.

Hook said Iran’s leaders are under intense domestic pressure, noting the widespread protests that have unfolded in the wake of the government’s admission that it downed the Ukrainian jet.

“The Iranian regime is facing a crisis of legitimacy and credibility,” Hook said. “We expect that to deepen in 2020.”

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have intensified following the Trump administration's exit from a nuclear accord involving Iran and world powers. Since the U.S. exit, Tehran has slowly taken steps to diminish its commitment to the agreement and Washington claims it is responsible for a series of attacks in the Persian Gulf on international oil tankers as well as energy-related infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.

Khamenei accused Washington of "lying" about its support for Iran's people and said the U.S. government would willingly "stab them with their poison dagger." He also struck a defiant tone over the Revolutionary Guards Corps' decision to shoot down the Ukrainian plane, saying the unit had "maintained the security of Iran."

Iran's supreme leader, who has the final say on Iran's domestic and international affairs, added: "Our enemies were as happy about the plane crash as we were sad. "(They were) happy they found something to question our Guard and armed forces over."

Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls Trump a 'clown'