Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Picture: REUTERS
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Picture: REUTERS

Tehran — Iran will respond to the growing hostility from President Donald Trump when it celebrates the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution this week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in his first public comments since the US imposed new sanctions on the Islamic state.

"He says, ‘Be afraid of me’," Khamenei said, referring to Trump in a speech to air force commanders and personnel posted on his website on Tuesday. "People will respond to this on the anniversary of the revolution with their presence in the streets, and they will show what stance the population takes in the face of threat."

Iran marks the revolution that led to its Islamic Republic on February 10.

Iranian officials have said they would not be intimidated by the Trump administration, which put their nation "on notice" for testing a ballistic missile last week and then sanctioned a list of entities it said were linked to the missile programme. Iran said the test launches were a matter of sovereignty and security rather than a signal intended for Trump, who had tweeted that Iran was "playing with fire".

Khamenei’s comments were the latest to rebuke the president without escalating the confrontation, said Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at London’s King’s College.

"Rather than mirroring Trump, the supreme leader is adopting an ‘I-told-you-so’ tone to allow Trump’s comments to speak for themselves," she said.

Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate arbiter on all issues of state, had warned that the US remained untrustworthy even as the two nations went on to achieve a breakthrough in ties with the 2015 nuclear deal, "so the US rhetoric plays into" his world view, Esfandiary said.

‘Difficult days’

The Trump White House has adopted a hard line on Iran since taking power on January 20, banning its citizens from entering the US and accusing the nation of interfering in the affairs of the US’s regional allies in the Middle East.

During his campaign, Trump vowed to either "tear up" or change the terms of the landmark accord, which lifted a host of sanctions on Iran in return for curbing its nuclear programme.

While he has not repeated those pledges in office, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he believed "Trump may try to renegotiate" and predicted "difficult days ahead". Neither Iran nor other signatories to the deal would accept that, Zarif said in an interview published by the Tehran-based Ettelaat newspaper on Tuesday.

Khamenei offered conditional support for the nuclear diplomacy, helping to protect President Hassan Rouhani and his team of negotiators led by Zarif from hardliners opposed to the talks. If Trump now tries to unpick the deal, Rouhani can expect a renewed onslaught from critics sensing an opportunity to weaken him in the lead-up to presidential elections in May.

‘Real face’

Speaking on Tuesday, Khamenei said Iran was "thankful to this newcomer" for validating its long-held opinion of the US government as deceitful. Trump "is showing the real face of the US", he said.

Rallies to mark the anniversary of the revolution are intended to demonstrate support for the clerical regime and its values, and are attended each year by tens of thousands of Iranians, including many state employees and their families.

This year, the establishment will also use the parades "to harness backing from those who don’t normally participate but are now infuriated" by Trump’s inclusion of Iran in his seven-nation immigration ban and perceived American threats, said Ellie Geranmayeh, Middle East senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

"We are likely to see an uptick in participants at the rally relative to other years," she said.


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