Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for a “year of unity” in the face of “Israeli plots” to create division, as Iran celebrated 39 years since the Islamic Revolution Sunday in the wake of protests that rocked the country last month.
“The plots by the United States and Israel to create division among the Iranians, Iraqis and the Lebanese were defeated,” Rouhani said in a speech before a huge crowd in Tehran, as hundreds of thousands converged on the city’s central Azadi Square.
“The Americans wanted to interfere in our internal affairs, but our people turned its back to them,” Rouhani said, as demonstrators chanted traditional slogans of “Death to the United States” and “Death to Israel.”
Earlier, Rouhani said the widespread attendance was a “response to the new US conspiracies against our nation and the Zionists’ moves in the region,” apparently referring to IDF strikes on Iranian targets in Syria on Saturday and the downing of an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace.
Rouhani did not specifically discuss Saturday’s flare-up, during which an Israeli F-16 was targeted by a Syrian anti-aircraft missiles that exploded alongside it, ultimately crashing in Israel, but he did stress that Iran is building a range of missiles, including “anti-aircraft missiles.”
“I request that the 40th year of the revolution, the coming year, be the year of unity,” he added. “I ask conservatives, reformists, moderates and all parties and all people to come and be together.”
Abroad, Iran has successfully helped push back the Islamic State group in Iraq and assisted embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad in regaining strategic ground in his country’s long war.
At home, however, the country’s economy still struggles despite its 2015 landmark nuclear deal with world powers.
In late December and early January, protests across the country began over the economy. They later changed into demonstrations directly challenging the government.
Rouhani, a long-time regime insider who won power in 2013 and again in 2017 with the backing of reformists, has faced tough criticism from conservatives over his efforts to rebuild relations with the West and ease civil liberties.
“We should trust the people. We must allow all inclinations to participate in elections,” he said. “In the last 39 years, we have progressed in many fields, but at the same time we have had shortcomings. Maybe in decision-making, we have had delays. Maybe we haven’t been speaking transparently with our people.”
The conservative-dominated Guardian Council has the power to veto candidates in all elections, and has in the past barred hundreds of reformists from standing for the presidency and parliament.
The ceremony comes a day after Israel shot down an Iranian drone that infiltrated its airspace and launched a widespread retaliatory offensive against Iranian targets in Syria.
The IDF said it destroyed the drone’s Iranian launching site along with four additional Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, including the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker.
The Israeli F-16 fighter jet was targeted while flying over Syria during the raid, but managed to return to Israel, where its two pilots bailed out of the plane, which crashed into a field in the Jezreel Valley, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus. One of the airmen was severely injured, while the second was lightly wounded.
Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said on Sunday the Israeli strikes sent a clear message to the Islamic Republic that Jerusalem won’t tolerate an Iranian military foothold on its doorstep.
Katz told Army Radio it would take the Iranians time to “digest” the Israeli airstrikes.
“They, and we, know what we hit and it will take them some time to digest, understand, and ask how Israel knew how to hit those sites,” he said. “These were concealed sites and we have intelligence agencies and the ability to know everything that is going on there and yesterday we proved that.”