In Prospects of Easing Regional Tensions, Tehran Faces Internal Turmoil

After three days of denial, Iran finally came clean on Saturday about the downing of a Ukrainian civilian airliner earlier on Wednesday, January 8, which it said its forces had shot down errantly while on the alert over Tehran’s recent perilous escalation with the United States.

In a tweet, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the incident a “crisis” caused by “US adventurism”. Hassan Rouhani, the country’s president, called it a “great tragedy” and an “unforgivable error”.

A Boeing 737-800, the airliner crashed a few minutes following its takeoff, leaving all 176 passengers dead. Iran said on Saturday that its air defenses were fired in error as it was expecting a retaliation from the United States after Tehran had ordered, a few hours earlier, the striking of two Iraqi military bases housing US troops.

Tehran’s downing of the commercial airplane rekindled a new wave of protests during the weekend, a few days after Iranians appeared to unite over the death of Iran’s highest-ranking general, Qassim Soleimani, in a US drone strike on Friday, January 3.

Now Iranians chanted slogans against Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling for his immediate resignation.

Iran’s Fars news agency reported that the anti-government protesters numbered about 1,000 people, whereas banners depicting the assassinated General Soleimani were torn.

Videos posted on social media showed protesters calling Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a murderer. Other footage showed people shouting “death to liars” and “death to the dictator” Such statements could get individuals executed in Iran.

The protests started as vigils, where people mourned the victims who were mostly students. People first gathered near the University of Amir Kabir in Tehran, many carrying candles and placing flowers at the gates of the university and in other public spaces, reported the New York Times.

But the gatherings soon turned into a public objection against the authorities. Iranians were enraged that Tehran had lied about the incident for so long, although a top Revolutionary Guards commander said on Saturday that he had soon informed authorities about the missile strike.

“When the US shot down an Iran plane in the Persian Gulf in 1988, they immediately announced that they were responsible,” a protester told the BBC. “I had hoped the Iranian authorities would have told the people from the very first day,” he added.

Iran previously said the incident was caused by the aircraft’s mechanical problems, as Boeing itself suffers a growing general criticism over reported mechanical failures that had caused several civil airliners to crash recently.

Critics said Tehran only admitted it carried out the strike after an international investigation – which it was leading – neared the conclusion that the Ukrainian airliner was hit by a missile.

Ukrainian officials said on Saturday that they could determine that the crash was due to a missile strike as soon as Thursday, a day following the incident, when they said they found enough evidence, although Iran tried to hinder the investigations, in efforts such as sweeping debris into piles instead of cautiously documenting it.

Ukraine called for compensation, and President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country insisted “on a full admission of guilt”.

Protesters in Tehran and other cities also blamed Iran for allowing commercial aviation to proceed normally, whereas Tehran had announced security measures over risks of reprisals from the United States.

The international reaction to the crash also overshadowed the sympathy Iran had gained after the killing of Soleimani. Canada, which was the most affected by the incident as 57 of its nationals died, said many questions remained.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Saturday in a news conference that “Canada and the world still have many questions, questions that must be answered.”

Although Canada has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 2012, Trudeau said he spoke with President Hassan Rouhani, who committed to collaborating with Canadian investigators.

Britain’s Boris Johnson also said that Iran’s “admission that Ukrainian International Airline Flight 752 was shot down by mistake by its armed forces is an important first step.”

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ airspace unit, said he deeply regretted the incident for which he said he takes full responsibility. Rather than having the incident taking place, Hajizadeh told local media outlets he wished he “was dead”.

On Thursday, January 9, the White House passed a resolution to limit President Trump’s military powers against Iran, giving more authority to Congress to ease tensions in the Middle East. The United States also declared that it was stepping back from military action against Iran, but Trump still seeks direct involvement, even if internally.

“To the leaders of Iran – DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching,” the tweet read. “More importantly, the USA is watching.”

Even as many countries have called for a de-escalation in regional tensions with Tehran, Iran now faces a bigger internal turmoil. On Sunday, January 12, more demonstrators were reported to have taken to the streets in Tehran and other cities.

Security forces used tear gas on protesters and cracked down on them, not allowing the mourners to hold vigils, critics said, even as Tehran admitted its wrongdoing. As many as 1,500 protesters were said to have been killed in the protests that erupted in November 2019.