In the complex and opaque politics of Iran, this week’s Friday prayers in the capital Tehran was one of those moments which provides clues on the country’s strength, its direction and the confidence of its leadership.
The nation’s supreme leader delivered the sermon in the city’s main mosque for the first time in eight years.
At an acutely tricky moment for the Islamic Republic, with the assassination of a key figure, downing of a passenger plane and domestic protests, the appearance alone was an attempted display of national unity.
With the country’s subservient president watching, Ayatollah Khamenei’s rhetoric was familiar.
“These American clowns, who with lies and utter evil, say they stand by the Iranian people, they should see who the Iranian people are,” the supreme leader told a crowd of thousands.
Image: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Americans ‘clowns’
He referenced the European signatories to the fractured nuclear deal – the “evil governments of France, Germany and the UK are lackeys to America”, he said.
But on the prospect of future negotiations, he offered some hope.
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“We are not against negotiations, of course not with the US, but with others. However, not from a weak standpoint but from a position of strength. Thank god we are strong and will grow even stronger.”
Iran has accepted full responsibility for the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane over Iran last week. And as the investigation into the crash continues, he echoed the Iranian government’s regret.
“I want to say that to the same extent that we are saddened and felt grief in our heart by this plane crash, our enemy was overjoyed to the same extent.
“Our enemy was overjoyed, they thought they had found a lever with which to bring into question the forces, our military forces, to question the Islamic establishment.”
Ayatollah attacks US in rare address
He was preaching, literally, to the converted inside the mosque and outside where thousands more gathered.
They were mostly his loyalists, but no doubt too, among them, were some who felt compelled to be seen there.
How many really believe the ‘death to America’ mantra? There was an intriguing moment on the state TV footage.
As it streamed live images of people walking towards the Friday prayers, it briefly captured one man choosing to walk around an American flag which had been placed on the ground for people to walk over.
There were similar images in footage of the protests against the government earlier in the week – protesters choosing to walk around huge American and Israeli flags covering the ground.
The protests over the past few days were a reaction to the accidental downing of the Ukrainian plane.
They followed weeks of protests in cities across Iran against the Iranian leadership itself. The only pause to the protest movement came during the few days around the American assassination of General Qaseem Soleimani.
Image: Iran’s supreme leader addresses supporters in Tehran
Through diplomacy, espionage and guesswork, the West constantly tries to decipher the inner workings of the Iranian leadership.
Perhaps more than any other country, it is the Israelis who really feel threatened by Iran and so it’s they who watch most carefully.
The assessment from those I talk to in Tel Aviv is that this is a very challenging period for the Iranian leadership – maybe the most challenging since the Islamic Republic’s formation in 1979.
The pressure of sanctions through America’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy is hurting. Protests domestically are growing louder and louder.
And Iran’s regional influence is under strain: the governments it supports in Iraq and in Lebanon are facing their own domestic pressures, and in Syria, a victorious President Assad is increasingly looking to Russian financial support that Iran can’t provide.
All that said, few are predicting the imminent collapse of the Iranian leadership.
But what’s not clear is whether the pressure it’s under – and the strains and power struggle within – will prompt more aggression or pull Iran back to negotiations.
Source : Sky News