Iran's Supreme Leader Says 'Highway Bully' U.S. Is Targeting Country Because It's a Symbol of Resistance

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has branded the U.S. a "highway bully" that is only targeting his nation because leaders in Washington cannot brook dissent.

Speaking in Tehran on Monday, Khamenei cast his regime as a "religious democracy" that is refusing to bow to an American-dominated world order, the state-controlled Press TV reported.

"The resistance of the Islamic Republic of Iran against America and the Iranian nation's refusal to undergo bullying is a fascinating fact for the world and this fascination should be used to spread the truth about Islam and the Iranian nation," Khamenei said.

He added: "The reason Americans are angry with the Iranian nation is the appeal which arises from the image of resistance in an independent system standing up against a highway bully."

The U.S. and Iran came close to open conflict earlier this month, trading strikes against military targets in Iraq. The situation escalated when a U.S. drone killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad international airport.

Soleimani commanded the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' clandestine Quds Force, and was considered the second most powerful figure within the regime. President Donald Trump's administration said Soleimani was preparing imminent attacks against American targets, though is yet to produce any evidence supporting the assertion.

Tehran vowed retaliation, which came in the form of missile strikes against two Iraqi military bases hosting American troops. Seemingly designed to avoid serious casualties and further escalation, American soldiers received advance warning of the attack and none were killed, though 11 were wounded.

Hours later, Iranian forces accidentally shot down a passenger plane just outside Tehran after misidentifying it as an American military aircraft. All 176 people aboard were killed. Iran's limited retaliation and the subsequent passenger plane tragedy took some of the heat out of the stand off, allowing both sides to step away from the brink of more extensive conflict.

Khamenei, however, is retaining his stubborn stance on the U.S. question, even as his regime grapples with renewed protests sparked by the downing of the passenger jet. The ayatollah said Monday that "millions of propaganda instruments are operating against the Islamic Republic."

The historic animosity between Washington and Tehran has been given a shot in the arm by President Donald Trump's presidency. Long a critic of the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal—officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—Trump announced he would withdraw the U.S. from the accord in May 2018.

The White House then began re-imposing crippling sanctions on Iran, undermining its economy and contributing to widespread anti-government unrest. In response, Iran gradually announced it would no longer comply with certain JCPOA restrictions it had been adhering to.

Tehran also encouraged intensified activity by Iranian-backed militias across the Middle East, such as attacks on American facilities Iraq, strikes on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure and the bombing of commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf.

After Soleimani was killed, the regime announced it would no longer abide by any restrictions in the JCPOA, raising fears that Tehran could be within a year of being able to build nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration has offered to open negotiations on a new deal that would include restrictions on Iran's regional activity and ballistic missile program. But Tehran has dismissed the proposal, accusing the U.S. of "economic terrorism" and imperialism.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—an Iran hawk who reportedly pushed Trump to assassinate Soleimani—has said the U.S. wants "Iran to simply behave like a normal nation."

Last week, special representative for Iran Brian Hook said the same. "As long as the regime threatens the world it will become more isolated," he told reporters. "Until Iran behaves like a normal nation its isolation will only deepen."

On Monday, Khamenei said the demand shows the U.S. wants the country to "drop its new message for the world, that is combining popular opinion with Islamic thought and religious principles in the formation and administration of society."

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Seyed Abbas Mousavi said Monday that Iran remains committed to the nuclear deal, for which Russia, China, France, the U.K., Germany and the European Union are also signatories. Mousavi said Iran's piecemeal violation of JCPOA restrictions was a response to the actions of other signatories.

Earlier this month, France, the U.K. and Germany—known collectively as the E3—accused Iran of breaking the JCPOA and triggered the deal's dispute mechanism that could result in the reimposition of United Nations sanctions.

In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran would consider leaving the Cold War-era Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons "if the Europeans continue to play more political games."

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Tihs file photo shows a boy walking past a portrait of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and other Shi'ite clerics in the Lebanese town of Ghazieh, south of the port city of Sidon, on November 12, 2019 MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images/Getty