Iran's top leader strikes defiant tone amid month of turmoil

FILE-In this file photo released on May 22, 2019 by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of students in Tehran, Iran.  Iran's supreme leader will deliver a Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 sermon in Tehran for the first time since 2012, as the Islamic Republic grapples with the fallout from the targeted killing of its top general in a U.S. airstrike and popular anger at its accidental shootdown of a passenger plane. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File)
FILE-In this file photo released on May 22, 2019 by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of students in Tehran, Iran. Iran's supreme leader will deliver a Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 sermon in Tehran for the first time since 2012, as the Islamic Republic grapples with the fallout from the targeted killing of its top general in a U.S. airstrike and popular anger at its accidental shootdown of a passenger plane. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File)

TEHRAN – 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 American killing of a top Iranian general to Iran's 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 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.

U.S. President Donald Trump later tweeted a sharp response to Khamenei: “The so-called ‘Supreme Leader' of Iran, who has not been so Supreme lately, had some nasty things to say about the United States and Europe. Their economy is crashing, and their people are suffering. He should be very careful with his words!"

After the missile strike on Soleimani, 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.