TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s supreme leader wept Monday over the casket of a top general killed in a U.S. airstrike, his prayers joining the wails of mourners who flooded the streets of Tehran demanding retaliation against America for a slaying that’s drastically raised tensions across the Middle East.
The funeral for Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani drew a crowd said by police to be in the millions in the Iranian capital, filling thoroughfares and side streets as far as the eye could see. Although there was no independent estimate, aerial footage and Associated Press journalists suggested a turnout of at least 1 million, and the throngs were visible on satellite images of Tehran taken Monday.
Authorities later brought his remains and those of the others to Iran’s holy city of Qom, turning out another massive crowd.
The outpouring of grief was an unprecedented honour for a man viewed by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force. The U.S. blames him for the killing of American troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before his death Friday in a drone strike at Baghdad’s airport. Soleimani also led forces in Syria backing President Bashar Assad in a long war.
His slaying already has pushed Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as his successor and others vow to take revenge. In Baghdad, the parliament has called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil, something analysts fear could allow Islamic State militants to mount a comeback.
Soleimani’s daughter, Zeinab, directly threatened the U.S. military in the Middle East while also warning President Donald Trump, whom she called “crazy.”
“The families of the American soldiers … will spend their days waiting for the death of their children,” she said to cheers.
Her language mirrored warnings by other Iranian officials who say an attack on U.S. military interests in the Middle East looms. Iranian state TV and others online shared a video that showed Trump’s American flag tweet following Soleimani’s killing turn into a coffin, the “likes” of the tweet replaced by over 143,000 “killed.”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prayed over the caskets of Soleimani and others at Tehran University after a brief mourning period at the capital’s famed Musalla mosque, The mosque was where prayers were said over the body of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, after his death in 1989.
Khamenei, who had a close relationship with Soleimani and referred to him as a “living martyr,” broke down in tears four times while offering Muslim prayers for the dead.
“Oh God, you took their spirits out of their bodies as they were rolling in their blood for you and were martyred in your way,” Khamenei said as the crowd wailed. Soleimani will be buried Tuesday in his hometown of Kerman.
Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, stood near Khamenei’s side as did President Hassan Rouhani and other leaders of the Islamic Republic. While Iran recently faced nationwide protests over government-set gasoline prices that reportedly led to the killing of over 300, Soleimani’s death has brought together people from across the country’s political spectrum, temporarily silencing that anger.
Demonstrators burned Israeli and U.S. flags, carried a flag-draped U.S. coffin or displayed effigies of Trump. Some described Trump as a legitimate target.
Mohammad Milad Rashidi, a 26-year-old university graduate, predicted more tension ahead.
“Trump demolished the chance for any sort of possible agreement between Tehran and Washington,” Rashidi said. “There will be more conflict in the future for sure.”
Another mourner, Azita Mardani, warned that Iran “will retaliate for every drop of his blood.”
“We are even thankful to (Trump) because he made us angry and this fury will lead to shedding of their blood in the Persian Gulf and the region’s countries,” Mardani said. “Here will become their graveyard.”
Ghaani made his own threat in an interview shown Monday on Iranian state television. “God the Almighty has promised to get his revenge, and God is the main avenger. Certainly actions will be taken,” he said.
Markets reacted Monday to the tensions, sending international benchmark Brent crude above $70 a barrel for part of the day and gold to a seven-year high. The Middle East remains a crucial source of oil, and Iran in the past has threatened the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all the world’s oil traded passes.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, chairing emergency talks with the alliance’s ambassadors in Brussels, called for “restraint and de-escalation,” adding: “A new conflict would be in no one’s interest.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned global political tensions were “at their highest level this century.” He added: “stop escalation. Exercise maximum restraint. Re-start dialogue. Renew international co-operation.”
Ghaani, a longtime Soleimani deputy, has taken over as the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds, or Jerusalem, Force, answerable only to Khamenei. Ghaani has been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2012 for his work funding its global operations, including its work with proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Those proxies likely will be involved in any operation targeting U.S. interests in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Already, the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans “of the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks.” In Lebanon, the leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah said Soleimani’s killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair game for attacks.
“We promise to continue down martyr Soleimani’s path as firmly as before with help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to get rid of America from the region,” Ghaani said.
The head of the Guard’s aerospace program, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, suggested Iran’s response wouldn’t stop with a single attack.
“Firing a couple of missiles, hitting a base or even killing Trump is not valuable enough to compensate for martyr Soleimani’s blood,” Hajizadeh said on state TV. “The only thing that can compensate for his blood is the complete removal of America from the region.”
On the nuclear deal, Iran now says it won’t observe the accord’s restrictions on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities. That’s a much-harsher step than they had planned to take before the attack.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have urged Iran to “withdraw all measures” not in line with the deal.
Iran insisted it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it wouldn’t seek a nuclear weapon.
However, the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions last year. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran’s longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Edith M. Lederer contributed from the United Nations.
Nasser Karimi And Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press