Iran's supreme leader lashed out at Western countries as he led Friday prayers in Tehran for the first time in eight years, dismissing "American clowns" who he said pretend to support the Iranian nation but want to stick their "poisoned dagger" into its back.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used his rare appearance at the weekly prayers to deliver a fiery address in which he insisted Iran would not bow to U.S. pressure after months of crushing sanctions and a series of recent crises — from the killing of a top Iranian general to the accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger plane.
Khamenei said the mass funerals for Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike earlier this month, show that the Iranian people support the Islamic Republic despite its recent trials. He said the "cowardly" hit on Soleimani had taken out the most effective commander in the battle against the Islamic State group.
In response to Soleimani's killing, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles targeting U.S. troops in Iraq, without causing serious injuries. Khamenei said the strike had dealt a "blow to America's image" as a superpower. In the part of his sermon delivered in Arabic, he said the "real punishment" would be in forcing the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East.
After the missile strike, as Iran's Revolutionary Guard braced for an American counterattack that never came, it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian jetliner shortly after takeoff from Tehran's international airport, killing all 176 passengers on board, mostly Iranians.
Authorities concealed their role in the tragedy for three days, initially blaming the crash on a technical problem. When it came, 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" that he said had saddened Iran as much as it made its enemies happy. He said Iran's enemies had seized on the crash to question the Islamic Republic, the Revolutionary Guard and the armed forces.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said on Friday that his country wants Iran to issue a formal document admitting its guilt. Ukraine, Canada and other nations whose citizens died in the crash have demanded Iran pay compensation to the victims' families.
German airline Lufthansa meanwhile said its flights would continue to avoid Iranian airspace through March 28, citing the "continued unclear security situation."
Khamenei also lashed out at Britain, France and Germany after they triggered a dispute mechanism to try and bring Iran back into compliance with the unraveling 2015 nuclear agreement. Iran began openly breaching certain limits under the agreement last summer, more than a year after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal and began imposing sanctions. After the killing of Soleimani, Iran said it was no longer bound by the nuclear deal.
"These contemptible governments are waiting to bring the Iranian nation to its knees," Khamenei said. "America, who is your elder, your leader and your master, was not able to bring the Iranian nation to its knees. You are too small to bring the Iranian nation to its knees."
Khamenei has held the country's top office since 1989 and has the final say on all major decisions. The 80-year-old leader openly wept at the funeral of Soleimani and vowed "harsh retaliation" against the United States.
Thousands of people attended the Friday prayers, occasionally interrupting his speech by chanting "God is greatest!" and "Death to America!"
Tensions between Iran and the United States have steadily escalated since Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord, which had imposed restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
The U.S. has since imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, including its vital oil and gas industry, pushing the country into an economic crisis that has ignited several waves of sporadic, leaderless protests. Trump has openly encouraged the protesters — even tweeting in Farsi — hoping that the protests and the sanctions will bring about fundamental change in a longtime adversary.
Khamenei mocked those efforts, dismissing "these American clowns who falsely and despicably say that they are standing with the Iranian people." He did not refer to Trump by name, but was clearly referring to him and his administration.
"You are lying," he said. "If you do stand with the Iranian people it is because you want to stick your poisoned dagger into the back of the Iranian nation. Of course you haven't been able to do that so far, and you won't be able to do a damn thing."
Khamenei was always skeptical of the nuclear agreement, arguing that the United States could not be trusted. But he allowed President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, to conclude the agreement with President Barack Obama. Since Trump's withdrawal, he has repeatedly said there can be no negotiations with the United States.
Khamenei last delivered a Friday sermon in February 2012, when he called Israel a "cancerous tumor" and vowed to support anyone confronting it. He also warned against any U.S. strikes on Iran over its nuclear program, saying the U.S. would be damaged "10 times over."
Iran's president said Thursday that there is "no limit" to the country's enrichment of uranium following its decision to abandon its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal in response to the killing of its top general in a U.S. airstrike.
In a speech before the heads of banks, Rouhani said the nuclear program is in a "better situation" than it was before the nuclear agreement with world powers.
President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement in May 2018, in part because it did not address Iran's support for armed groups across the region and its ballistic missile program. The U.S. has since imposed "maximum" sanctions on Iran's economy.
Iran continued to abide by the agreement until last summer, when it began openly breaching some of its limits, saying it would not be bound by the deal if it saw none of its promised economic benefits. After the Jan. 3 airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran's regional military operations, it said it would abandon all restrictions in the nuclear deal.
Thus far, however, it has only modestly increased its nuclear activity. In recent months it has boosted its enrichment of uranium to 4.5% — higher than the 3.67% limit set by the agreement but far from the 20% enrichment it was engaged in before the deal. Uranium must be enriched to 90% to be used in a nuclear weapon.
Britain, France and Germany have spent months trying to salvage the deal, but have not found a way to continue trading with Iran amid the tightened U.S. sanctions. Earlier this week, they triggered a dispute mechanism in the nuclear deal to try to bring Iran back into compliance. That process could lead to the snapback of international sanctions.
In his speech before the bankers, Rouhani acknowledged that the sanctions had caused economic pain but said such considerations could not be separated from foreign policy and national security.
He also acknowledged the steadily rising tensions with the United States.
"A single bullet can cause a war, and not shooting a single bullet can lead to peace," he said, adding that his administration is seeking greater security.
Turkey on Wednesday lifted its more than two-year ban on accessing Wikipedia, weeks after the country's highest court ruled that the block violated freedom of expression.
Turkey blocked Wikipedia in April 2017, accusing it of being part of a "smear campaign" against the country, after the website refused to remove content that allegedly portrayed Turkey as supporting the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations.
Access resumed Wednesday, hours after Turkey's Official Gazette published details of last month's Constitutional 's Court ruling in favor of Wikipedia.
Access to the website was blocked under a law that allows the government to ban websites that it deems to pose a national security threat.
Wikipedia had declined to remove content from the community-generated site, citing its opposition to censorship. It petitioned the Constitutional Court in May 2017 after talks with Turkish officials and a challenge in lower courts failed.
Turkey has a poor record on censorship and suppression of free speech, which intensified following a failed military coup in 2016 against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. Tens of thousands of people were arrested or dismissed from government jobs and thousands of media organizations or civil society groups were shut in a clampdown in the aftermath of the coup attempt.
Access from Turkey to tens of thousands of other websites remain blocked. In 2008, Turkey prevented access to YouTube for two years over videos insulting the Turkish republic's founding leader. Twitter, meanwhile, says it receives more requests for content removal from Turkey than from other countries.
Many Turks however, have found ways to circumvent the ban on Wikipedia and other blocked websites.
The US military is resuming operations against Islamic State militants in Iraq and is working to soon restart training Iraqi forces, U.S. officials said Wednesday, despite deep divisions over the American drone strike that killed an senior Iranian commander in Baghdad and the resulting missile attacks by Iran on Iraqi bases.
One official said some joint operations between the U.S. and Iraqi forces have already begun, but there are not yet as many as before. The official said details are still being worked out to restore the training of Iraqi forces, but that could happen relatively soon.
Relations with Iraq were fractured after the U.S. launched a drone strike near Baghdad's international airport on Jan. 3 that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The Parliament later voted to expel U.S. forces from the country and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi asked Washington to work out a road map for a troop withdrawal. The U.S. flatly rejected that request and has not moved to pull the more than 5,000 troops out.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss decisions not yet made public.
One official said military leaders have discussed the resumption of operations with the Iraqis, but it's not clear who was involved in those talks or whether Iraqi government leaders are publicly endorsing the move.
Iraqi leaders were angry about the American drone strike and the retaliatory attacks by Iran. Iranian missiles struck Al-Asad Air Base last week, and hit near another base, but warnings sounded and no one was killed or injured.
Iraq officials, however, called the U.S. strike that killed Soleimani an unacceptable breach of Iraqi sovereignty. That strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. And thousands of anti-government protesters turned out in Baghdad and southern Iraq, with many calling for both the U.S. and Iran to leave their country.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, dismissed the calls for American troops to leave, saying the forces are critical to the fight against the Islamic State group.
"We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is," Pompeo said during one White House appearance last week.
Tensions in Iraq had been spiking since late December, when a rocket attack at a base in northern Iraq killed one American contractor. The U.S. blamed Iran-backed fighters and quickly struck back. American airstrikes targeted Iranian-backed militia at five sites in Iraq and Syria, including weapons depots and command and control bases.
Over New Year's, hundreds of Iran-backed militiamen attacked the highly fortified American embassy compound in Baghdad. The Pentagon deployed hundreds of additional troops to the region, and scaled back military operations and training inside Iraq.
U.S. officials have said they believe Iraq is also interested in resuming the training, which has been going on since 2015, after IS began taking control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. More details, including increased security for U.S. and coalition forces, are still being discussed.
The New York Times first reported the resumption of joint military operations.
The top U.N. official in Lebanon on Wednesday denounced acts of vandalism by protesters targeting the country's banks a day earlier. But the senior diplomat reserved his harshest words for Lebanese politicians, saying they had only themselves to blame for the chaos.
The strongly worded statement by Jan Kubis, U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, came as violent confrontations between protesters and police continued for a second consecutive day. On Wednesday night, police fired tear gas and beat up protesters who hit back with fire crackers, water bottles and stones in a Beirut neighborhood. At least 35 were injured, mostly from gas inhalation or rock throwing, according to the Red Cross. Ten were treated on the spot.
Kubis criticized the political class' management of the country's deepening economic crisis, saying those responsible for handling it "are watching it collapse. Incredible."
Kubis' comments, made in a series of tweets, reflect the growing frustration of the international community with the stalemate that has beset the country as politicians jockey for power even as the economy spirals downward.
International donors have been demanding that Lebanon institute major economic changes and anti-corruption measures and appoint a new government to unlock $11 billion in pledges made in 2018.
Panic and anger gripped the public as they watched their local currency, pegged to the dollar for almost three decades, plummet, losing more than 60% of its value in recent weeks. Public debt has soared while the economy contracted and foreign inflows dried up in the already heavily indebted country that relies on imports for most of its basic goods.
Meanwhile, banks have imposed informal capital controls, limiting withdrawal of dollars and foreign transfers in the country.
Protesters rallied outside the central bank Tuesday night denouncing its governor's policies and the entire political class for mismanaging the economy. The rally turned violent, and protesters clashed with security forces for hours, some of them smashing windows of private banks nearby.
"Another day of confusion around the formation of a government, amidst the increasingly angry protests and free-falling economy," Kubis tweeted. "Politicians, don't blame the people, blame yourselves for this dangerous chaos."
He said, however, that vandalism is not an appropriate way of manifesting "legitimate anger and desperation."
Lebanese security forces arrested 59 people, police said Wednesday, following the overnight clashes. The hours-long clashes also left 47 policemen injured, security forces said.
On Wednesday, hundreds gathered outside a police station demanding the release of those taken into custody the night before, clashing with security forces who lobbed tear gas to disperse them. Police detained scores of protesters and beat some of them, including women, dragging them away. For the second night in a row, some protesters smashed the windows of a private bank and destroyed a nearby ATM machine.
Elsewhere in Beirut, protesters resumed blocking roads and rallied outside the central bank by nightfall. Dozens were able to partially block three main roads and temporarily shut down a highway north of the city before the military reopened it.
In three months of protests, this was the first time the commercial center of Beirut had become the scene of clashes. The area, which is also home to theaters and restaurants, was left deserted except for protesters, police and smoke from the tear gas.
Traffic resumed Wednesday and shops and banks reopened as pavement was cleared of broken glass.
Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned shortly after the protests first began in mid-October, said the violence in Hamra was "unacceptable" and an aggression on the heart of the capital. He called for an investigation. A new prime minister designate was named in December but has still been unable to form a new government.