After the Iranian regime first denied and then finally admitted that it had shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane killing all 176 people aboard, protests broke out against the government in Tehran as well as in other Iranian cities. As many as tens of thousands of Iranian people are said to be involved. Protesters are risking their lives denouncing the government, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
“Khamenei is a murderer!” some protesters exclaimed. Others shouted slogans such as “Death to liars!”, “Death to the dictator!”, and “You have no shame!” Whatever national unity there was in the immediate aftermath of the American killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani is now gone. Indeed, protesters were seen ripping up pictures of Soleimani. Even some hardline conservatives in Iran, who generally support the regime, were critical of how the government had handled the downing of the plane.
Riot police, plainclothes security men, and members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have been out in full force, trying to keep things under control. Police even arrested the British ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, who was attending a vigil for the victims. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi described Ambassador Macaire as “an unknown foreigner in an illegal gathering” before confirming the ambassador’s identity and allowing him to be freed. The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab denounced the arrest of Ambassador Macaire as “a flagrant violation of international law.”
In the past, the Iranian regime has been brutal to its own citizens who dared to protest against the government. A bloody crackdown late last year resulted in the deaths of as many as 1000 demonstrators and the wounding and imprisonment of thousands more. President Trump cautioned Iran’s leaders this time to show restraint. He tweeted:
“To the leaders of Iran – DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!”
Clearly, the Iranian regime is on the defensive. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, offered a half-apology while also blaming the Great Satan, the United States, for the tragedy. “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster,” he tweeted. But the Iranian leaders and military have nobody to blame but themselves. And the Iranian people are tired of the regime’s standard propaganda.
Many poor and lower middle class people who have supported the regime in the past turned against it last fall after the regime imposed an increase in gas prices. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ costly military ventures abroad, while Iranian citizens were suffering economic misery at home, added to the anger fueling the protests. The shooting down of the passenger plane and the cover up that followed may become the tipping point.
The Iranian regime had no explanation as to why commercial planes were allowed to take off from Iran in the first place, after the regime had launched missiles aimed at Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops and was anticipating a possible military response by the United States. Then, the regime offered a lame explanation for the crash, ascribing it to technical problems, before being forced to admit the truth in the face of overwhelming evidence that an Iranian missile had struck the Ukrainian aircraft. Even after admitting what the regime called a human error on its part, Iran’s military tried to deflect some blame onto the flight’s crew for allegedly veering off course near a sensitive military base. After Ukraine pushed back on this claim, an Iranian commander with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps walked it back. In short, the Iranian regime has bungled the whole incident from beginning to end.
“This tragedy will not be forgotten nor is it easy to overcome for the population under sanctions and pressure not just from abroad but also from the state,” said Sanam Vakil, Senior Research Fellow at Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House. “This incident is a stark reminder of the gaping lack of governance.”
Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the downing of the plane “has shocked the public. Once more, the regime carelessly kills its own people. It punctures the already spurious narrative that the killing of Soleimani has united the Iranian people behind their government.”
Internationally, the Iranian regime’s claim to “credibility” has also taken a major hit.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has insisted on “a full admission of guilt” by the regime. “We expect Iran to assure its readiness for a full and open investigation, to bring those responsible to justice, to return the bodies of the victims, to pay compensation, and to make official apologies through diplomatic channels,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, the home country of many who were killed in the downed plane, said he was “outraged and furious” and demanded a “full and complete investigation.” For once, Trudeau is right.
In the irony of ironies, as reported by Voice of America, “Iran has invited the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. accident investigation agency, to participate” in the Ukrainian plane crash investigation. Is German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas right in saying that Iran’s invitation is “a very important signal” of possible de-escalation? It’s doubtful, but one can hope.