(VICE) – Iran’s Supreme Leader has once again blasted President Donald Trump, calling him a “clown” and warning Iranians that he would “push a poisonous dagger” into the nation’s back.
Thousands of people gathered Friday in a prayer hall in the center of the Iranian capital and on the streets outside to hear the cleric, many chanting “Death to America.”
Delivering the main weekly sermon in Tehran for the first time since 2012, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the U.S. killing of General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike earlier this month as “cowardly” and said it showed Washington’s “terrorist nature.”
But Iran’s response, of missile strikes on two U.S. air bases in Iraq, was guided by God, Khamenei said.
“The fact that Iran has the power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God.”
Khamenei has been the leader of the Islamic republic for more than 30 years, but his position has been undermined in recent months, first by widespread anti-government protests that shook the country in November and now by the assassination of one of the country’s most revered generals.
Khamenei’s rare appearance at Friday prayers is seen as an attempt to rally support for the regime days after protesters across the country took to the streets again to condemn the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner that killed 176 people. Protesters were heard chanting “Death to the dictator” and “Khamenei have shame, leave the country.”
Khamenei addressed a huge crowd in Tehran on Friday, but some questioned whether those in attendance were there of their own accord, after the semi-official Fars news agency released footage showing buses bringing people to the prayer venue from outside Tehran to boost turnout.
Earlier this month Iran fired 22 ballistic missiles at two U.S. air bases in Iraq. The Pentagon initially said the strikes caused no injuries, but it was revealed Thursday that 11 troops had sustained injuries in the attack.
“While no U.S. service members were killed in the Jan. 8 Iranian attacks on Al Asad Air base, several were treated for concussion symptoms from the blast and are still being assessed,” the U.S.-led military coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria said in a statement.
“Out of an abundance of caution, service members were transported from Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for follow-on screening. When deemed fit for duty, the service members are expected to return to Iraq,” the statement added.
Hours after that attack, Iran, on alert for a U.S. retaliation that never came, mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner shortly after it took off in Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. For three days, Iran’s leaders denied culpability, claiming the crash was caused by a technical fault, before finally admitting Iran had fired a surface-to-air missile at the plane.
The incident led to days of protests across Iran, but Khamenei said the Iranian people were united behind the country’s leaders, as evidenced by the millions of people attending Soleimani’s funeral.
Khamenei said western powers were seeking to capitalize on the downing of the plane to undermine Iran’s leaders, but he said western countries were too weak to “bring Iranians to their knees.”
He also hit out at the U.K., France, and Germany, who this week announced they would be challenging Iran over breaches of the 2015 nuclear pact, with Khamenei calling them “contemptible” governments and “servants” of the United States.