REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND BEIRUT -- Iran's supreme leader used a sermon at weekly Muslim prayers to lash out Friday at criticism of Iran's nuclear program and to dismiss escalating Western sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic.
Speaking before worshipers at Tehran University in remarks broadcast on state TV, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei assailed what he called U.S "war threats" and said the saber-rattling was ultimately destructive to the United States.
"These war threats are to America's detriment. Moreover, war will cause 10 times more damage to America," Khamenei said, prompting worshipers to chant: "Our free-minded leader, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves."
Amid a mood in Iran of considerable unease and economic uncertainty, devotees from different strata of society braved cold temperatures to see and hear the supreme leader during a rare appearance at Friday prayers.
His remarks were among his most pointed concerning the standoff about the Islamic Republic's contested nuclear program -- which Iran says is for peaceful purposes, though Washington and its allies suspect a weapons program.
Khamenei's address came as reports suggest that Israel may be planning a strike at Iran's nuclear facilities. Khamenei, who has the last say on all state matters, promised retaliation against any attack, and vowed to foil economic sanctions.
Tehran has said it is moving to cut off oil supplies preemptively to some European nations in retaliation for a European embargo on oil imports from Iran set to go into effect July 1.
Iran has also warned that a military strike by Washington or Tel Aviv would trigger retaliatory attacks on U.S. bases in the region and a Iranian shutdown of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping lane for the world oil supply.
Khamenei's comments come as Iran's economy is faltering. The national currency, the rial, has plummeted in value amid a volley of new Western sanctions. But the supreme leader portrayed the economic penalties against Iran as helping to build national resolve.
"These sanctions are aimed at dealing a blow to us, but in fact, they are of benefit to us," he said.
The supreme leader utilized the characteristic invective when referring to Israel: "The Zionist regime is a real cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut, God willing," Khamenei said, the semi-official Fars News Agency reported.
During his address, Khamenei hailed the victories of Islamic parties in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia. The results, he said, signaled the defeat of "all the Islamophobic efforts of America and Hollywood."
Tehran, however, has proved to be selective in its positions on the "Arab Spring" uprisings. Iran has voiced support for most Arab rebellions, but not the revolt against Iran's strategic ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Iran's position on the rebellion in Bahrain has angered that nation's dynastic rulers. Bahrain's government has accused Iran, where Shiite Islam dominates, of fomenting unrest among Bahraini Shiites against the Sunni Muslim monarchy. Khamenei staunchly denied such meddling.
"The rulers of Bahrain claimed that Iran is interfering in Bahrain's affairs," he said. "This is a lie and we are not interfering."
--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran
Photo: A photo provided by his office shows Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leading Friday prayers. Credit: Khamenei.ir