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Iran's Supreme Leader Delivers Rare Speech At Friday's Prayers


It happens every single week. Thousands of people gather in Tehran for Friday prayers. But this morning, they were joined by Iran's supreme leader. And for the first time in eight years, he delivered the sermon.

Now, this appearance came after two dicey weeks in the region. NPR's Jane Arraf is with me from Baghdad. Hi, Jane.


KING: So the first time he delivered the sermon in eight years, it is a very different Middle East from the last time he would have given that sermon. What stood out? What were the highlights?

ARRAF: It absolutely is a very different Middle East, but some of these themes will sound pretty familiar. He said there would be neither compromise nor surrender, only fight America. He wasn't very complimentary about President Trump. He said Donald Trump is a clown who only pretends to support the Iranian people but will push a poisonous dagger into their backs. All of this as people around him chanted, the blood running through our veins is a gift to our leader.

It has been eight years since he gave this sermon. And it was perhaps a little bit less fiery than many would have expected. He did not make specific threats. He criticized European countries for not supporting them on the deal that the U.S. has pulled out of that is now in jeopardy. And he praised Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander who was killed by a U.S. drone strike along with a top Iraqi official.

KING: What did he say about Soleimani exactly? Because I'm sure - we would gather or guess that he was leading the sermon today because of what happened two weeks ago with the U.S. targeting General Soleimani, killing him. What were some of the things that he said about this man?

ARRAF: Well, he said that he was not just a leader. He and Abdul Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was the Iraqi paramilitary leader - they were streams of thought. And those streams of thought would live on. And that's something that actually has important implications.

But he also referred to the strike on U.S. forces at the al-Assad base in western Iraq. And he said that dealt a blow to America's image as a superpower, but what he did not repeat were Iran's initial claims that 80 Americans had died when those missiles struck. In fact, no one died. There have been some casualties, some concussions, but no one died. And he has basically said that this had been vengeance for Soleimani's death, and it gave the Americans a valuable lesson.

KING: Because no one died in that retaliatory strike by Iran and because neither Iran or the U.S. has done anything in the meantime, does it seem like the tension is easing?

ARRAF: Yeah, in some ways, it does a little bit. In other ways, it seems like it's simply in pause, waiting to see what Iran will do, waiting to see if the U.S. has indeed stepped down. And part of that pause seems a little bit - it's reflected a bit with the U.S. military here. Now, after the U.S. strike and after an attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the U.S. military suspended operations with Iraqi forces. They're here to help Iraqis fight ISIS.

This week, though, we're told by a U.S. official that there was the first raid since they had done that suspension, the first raid with Iraqi forces. The Iraqi forces, though, are Kurdish forces, who are, of course, technically Iraqi but much, much friendlier to American forces. So while tension seems to be easing a little bit - the U.S. seems to feel not as much in danger here in terms of its troops - there still definitely is tension there.

KING: OK. NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad. Jane, thanks so much.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.