Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has defended the country’s armed forces after it admitted shooting down a passenger plane by mistake.
In a sermon Friday, Khameni said the Revolutionary Guard – the elite unit responsible for the disaster – “maintained the security” of Iran by downing the jet.
Widespread protests and criticism from abroad have put growing pressure on Iran over its handling of the incident.
But the ayatollah tried to rally support as he led Friday prayers in Tehran for the first time since 2012.
The ayatollah called for “national unity” and said Iran’s “enemies” – a reference to Washington and its allies – had used the shooting down of the plane to overshadow the killing of senior Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike.
“Our enemies were as happy about the plane crash as we were sad,” he said. “[They were] happy that they had found something to question the Guard and the armed forces.”
The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 was travelling to Kyiv from Tehran on 8 January when it crashed shortly after take-off. All 176 passengers on board, including nationals from Iran, Canada, Sweden and the UK, were killed.
The Iranian authorities initially denied responsibility but, after international pressure mounted, the hardline Revolutionary Guard admitted that the plane had been mistaken for a “cruise missile” during heightened tensions with the US.
Friday’s address at the Mosalla mosque in the capital was a show of defiance from the 80-year-old who last addressed the nation in 2012 on the 33rd anniversary of the country’s Islamic Revolution.