TEHRAN, Iran — A prominent Iranian cleric on Friday threatened two Israeli cities with destruction if the Jewish state “acts foolishly” and attacks its interests again, while thousands of protesters demonstrated against President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal with world powers.
The comments by Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami followed a week of escalating tensions that threaten to spill over into a wider conflict between the two bitter enemies, who have long fought each other through proxies in Syria and Lebanon.
Israeli airstrikes struck Iranian military installations inside Syria on Thursday — its biggest coordinated assault on Syria since the 1973 Mideast war — in retaliation for an Iranian rocket barrage on Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights. It was the most serious military confrontation between the two rivals to date.
Khatami, who has echoed sentiments of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who says Israel will not exist in 25 years, said the Jewish state could face destruction if it continues to challenge Iran.
“The holy system of the Islamic Republic will step up its missile capabilities day by day so that Israel, this occupying regime, will become sleepless and the nightmare will constantly haunt it that if it does anything foolish, we will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground,” he said, according to state television.
His remarks drew chants of “Death to America!” from those gathered for Friday prayers in Tehran.
Thousands later demonstrated across the country to protest Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. The protests resembled other aggressive but orderly gatherings typical under President Hassan Rouhani, who has portrayed himself as seeking rapprochement with the West and is simultaneously trying to save the nuclear deal with world powers while attempting to appease hard-liners seeking revenge for Israeli attacks.
In a lengthy government statement on Friday, the Iranian government warned that it would take “whatever reciprocal measures it deems expedient” if it…