Iranian supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used his Friday sermon last week to avoid further escalation in the conflict between Iran and the United States, delivering a speech that had something of the caution of US President Donald Trump’s speech the previous week in which he had also attempted to backtrack from continuing confrontation with Iran.
Many observers had expected to hear Khamenei’s sermon violently criticise the US and to be a prelude, like his sermon ten years ago that served to introduce the violent crackdown on protestors against the election results in Iran, to hardline regime policy.
However, Khamenei chose instead to adopt a calmer tone, and he evidently wanted to avoid escalation in the tension between Iran and the United States.
He spoke of the grandeur of the country and the honour of its soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for “Iran and Iranians”. Their assistance to Gaza and Palestine was intended to repel the enemy threat to “dear Iran” and ensure the security of the country, he said.
This may be one of the most important speeches made by the Ayatollah in the past decade, since he was careful not to encourage or criticise any groups, whether for or against the regime inside or outside the country. It was Iran that was at the heart of his speech rather than Islam.
According to some experts, the reason why so many people in Iran had gathered for the funeral of commander of the Iranian Al-Quds Force Qassem Suleimani, assassinated at the beginning of January by US forces in Baghdad, was not so much approval of the Al-Quds Force’s military actions in the region, or support for the regime, but a rebuff for any threat against Iran by foreign powers.
The people were expressing their grief at an air attack against an Iranian national on foreign soil, seeing this as an insult to Iran and an attack on Iranian pride.
Trump has also threatened attacks against Iranian cultural sites, and many Iranians will have spent anxious nights mulling over the possibility of a military attack against them, and this might also have contributed to their reaction to Soleimani’s assassination.
If Suleimani had been killed in the war zones of Iraq or Syria, perhaps his death would have met with a degree of indifference in Iran, especially given the poor relations between the regime and the people and the conflict between Iran and the United States that has brought the two countries to a historic standoff.
Trump hesitated in reacting to Iran’s missile attacks against its bases in Iraq following the assassination of Suleimani. His words at a press conference in Washington seemed to have been scripted to call for calm.
Trump said he was not after war with Iran and that the door to negotiations with the Islamic Republic was still open. Ayatollah Khamenei’s sermon was also relatively calm and specifically addressed Iranians rather than addressing Trump or the US by threatening it with vengeance.
“We have nothing against negotiations, but not with the United States and not from a position of weakness,” he said.
The Islamic Republic will likely not negotiate with the US as long as Trump is in the White House and Khamenei is alive. The assassination of Suleimani was unforgivable, Khamenei said, and Suleimani had been killed while he was a guest on an official visit to Baghdad.
Khamenei effectively appealed to Iran and Iranian patriotism as a way of creating solidarity among the people and consolidating national unity. His speech witnessed his determination to pursue this goal.
His avoidance of any reference to the killing last month of people who had protested against an increase in the price of petrol in Iran, whose number and identity have not been officially announced, was part of a wish to end the confrontation with the Iranian people and further enmity against the regime.
His reference to the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 passengers and crew on board, for which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was responsible, aimed to support the Guard and deflate public anger in Iran. He pointed to what he called the Guard’s services in safeguarding national security and the sacrifices it has made for the country.
He reminded people of “the magnificent” day of Suleimani’s funeral, which he called a “Day of God” later overshadowed by the tragedy of the shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger plane. He spoke of Iran’s national security and talked of the forthcoming elections in Iran in much the same way that Trump had used the assassination of Suleimani in his election campaign to Americans.
Khamenei thanked those who, despite their grief, had not made the “enemy happy” by protesting against the government. Extending his condolences to all Iranians who were in mourning, he urged them not to threaten Iran’s national security by demonstrating their anger to the satisfaction of the country’s enemies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.