Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Friday defended the country’s armed forces after it admitted to shooting down an Ukrainian passenger plane on January 8 by mistake, BBC reported. Anti-government protests have erupted across Iran over the incident, and the country is facing growing international pressure.

Khamenei, who gave his first Friday sermon in eight years, pointed out that the Revolutionary Guards – an elite force responsible for the disaster – “maintained the security” of Iran. Khamenei said his “heart burned” for the victims of the crash, but he accused Iran’s enemies of seeking to exploit the tragedy to bury the United States’ assassination of Iranian military leader General Qassem Soleimani, The New York Times reported.

“As much as we were sad about the crash, our enemy was happy about it,” Khamenei said. “They thought they found an excuse to undermine the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and our armed forces and question the Islamic Republic.” Khamenei described the protestors as “stooges of the United States”.

Iran has claimed to have arrested 30 people for their role in the plane crash in which all 176 people on board were killed, many of them Iranians and people of Iranian origin. Tehran has also arrested the person who posted a video of the missile striking the aircraft shortly after it took off from the airport. He is likely to face charges related to national security.

The Iranian leader described US President Donald Trump as a “clown” who only pretends to support the Iranian people, but will stab them in the back, The Guardian reported.

“The villainous US government repeatedly says that they are standing by the Iranian people,” Khamenei later tweeted in response to Trump’s tweet about protests in Iran. “They lie. If you are standing by the Iranian people, it is only to stab them in the heart with your venomous daggers. Of course, you have so far failed to do so and you will certainly continue to fail.”

Khamenei also lashed out at European powers such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, calling them “the footmen of the US”. “These three countries are the ones who helped Saddam [Hussein] as much as they could in his war against us,” he added.