TEHRAN, Iran — After he was briefly arrested, Britain’s ambassador to Tehran on Sunday denied an Iranian claim that he had taken part in a demonstration that broke out at a memorial for the 176 people killed when a plane was shot down.
Students held a gathering at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University on Saturday evening to honor those killed, hours after Iran admitted the Ukrainian airliner was downed by mistake.
Iran’s Mehr news agency said the ambassador, Rob Macaire, was arrested for his alleged “involvement in provoking suspicious acts” at the gathering in front of the university.
“Can confirm I wasn’t taking part in any demonstrations! Went to an event advertised as a vigil for victims of #PS752 tragedy,” Macaire said on Twitter, adding he had been detained half an hour after leaving.
“Normal to want to pay respects — some of victims were British. I left after 5 mins, when some started chanting,” he said.
“Arresting diplomats is of course illegal, in all countries,” he added.
— Rob Macaire (@HMATehran) January 12, 2020
The British government reacted with outrage, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab saying “The arrest of our ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law.”
Raab said the Iranian government was “at a cross-roads moment. It can continue its march towards pariah status with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to deescalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards.”
Authorities in Tehran have yet to make any statements about the incident.
Iran’s armed forces said on Saturday the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 was mistakenly shot down, after denying for days Western claims it was brought down by a missile.
Police dispersed students who chanted “radical” and “destructive” slogans when the tribute to those killed in the air disaster turned into an angry demonstration, Fars news agency reported.
The regime's security units resorted to heavy use of tear gas against peaceful gatherings held for the victims of the Ukraine Int'l Airlines flight #PS752 that was downed by the IRGC.#IranProtests #Iran pic.twitter.com/Wq5i7yvqrE
— İran Bülteni (@iranbulten) January 11, 2020
Israel’s Channel 12 news said there were reports of internet shutdowns in the Islamic Republic in the wake of the protests, though the claims could not immediately be verified. The Iranian authorities have responded to demonstrations in the past by disabling internet access to limit protesters’ ability to communicate and share information on events with the outside world.
Videos posted to social media showed demonstrators outside Tehran’s Amirkabir University chanting against the regime and urging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to resign. Calls included “Death to the dictator,” “Shame on you Khamenei, leave the country,” “Death to the liars,” and “Shame on the Revolutionary Guards, let the country go.”
— چهار فصل (@FourCzen) January 11, 2020
A BBC reporter said chants included: “Soleimani was a murderer, his leader is too.”
chants heard on Tehran streets: “Soleimani was a murderer, his Leader is too”
Protests emerged on streets in multiple cities across Iran few hours after IRGC admitted to shooting down a commercial flight #PS752.pic.twitter.com/PDTWJaxHlM
— Hadi Nili (@HadiNili) January 11, 2020
The plane was shot down early Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing US troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad. No one was hurt in the attack on the US bases.
Dozens of those who died were young Iranian students traveling to their studies in Canada.
Some reports indicated that protests also spread beyond Tehran, and that some demonstrators were tearing up pictures of Soleimani.
The belated admission of responsibility raised a host of new questions, such as who authorized the strike on the plane and why Iran did not shut down its international airport or airspace when it was bracing for a US reprisal.
It also undermined the credibility of information provided by senior officials, who for three days had adamantly dismissed allegations of a missile strike as Western propaganda. Bulldozers had cleared debris from the site after the crash, in an apparent effort to cover up what had happened.
Iran’s acknowledgment also altered the narrative around its confrontation with the US in a way that could anger the Iranian public. Iran had promised harsh revenge after Soleimani’s death, but instead of killing American soldiers, its forces downed a civilian plane in which most passengers were Iranian and none survived.
Iranians had rallied around their leaders after the killing of Soleimani, who was seen as a national icon for building up armed groups across the region that project Iranian influence and battle the Islamic State group and other perceived enemies.
Hundreds of thousands had attended funeral processions across the country in a show of support for the Islamic Republic just weeks after authorities had quashed protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices. Iran has been in the grip of a severe economic crisis since US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.
November saw mass protests held throughout the country over fuel price hikes, leading to two weeks of violence. Iran has yet to give overall figures for the number of people killed or arrested when security forces moved in to quell the unrest, which saw buildings torched and shops looted.