Hundreds protested against the Iranian regime in Tehran Saturday after the government acknowledged that it accidentally shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week, killing all 176 people aboard.
The admission came after Iranian officials had repeatedly denied Western accusations and mounting evidence that it was responsible.
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.”
— چهارفصل (@FourCzens) January 11, 2020
Police were reported to be responding with force during the rally.
For days, Iranian authorities misled Iranians about the cause of the crash that killed everyone aboard #FlightPS752.
Iranian officials apologized & promised accountability. But now, they're breaking up protests.
They must be held accountable.https://t.co/aFQo7jTYUx
— Abdorrahman Boroumand Center (@IranRights_org) January 11, 2020
The Fars news agency, which is close to conservatives, said the students chanted “destructive” and “radical” slogans.
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 Gen. 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 expressed anger online, Reuters reported.
“They concealed this huge tragic news for days just to mourn for Soleimani. Shame on you,” Reza Ghadyani said.
“You took your revenge from Iranians,” Ahmad Batebi tweeted. “Only resignation,” one Sadeq wrote.
“It is a national tragedy. The way it was handled and it was announced by the authorities was even more tragic,” Ali Ansari, a moderate cleric, said.
“They were so careful not to kill any American in their revenge for Soleimani. But they did not close the airport? This shows how much this regime cares for Iranians,” one woman, Mira Sedaghati, told the agency.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard’s aerospace division, said his unit accepts “full responsibility” for the shoot down. In an address broadcast by state TV, he said that when he learned about the downing of the plane, “I wished I was dead.”
He said Guard forces ringing the capital had beefed up their air defenses and were at the “highest level of readiness,” fearing that the US would retaliate. He said the airline’s pilot and crew had done nothing wrong, but an officer made the “bad decision” to open fire on the plane after mistaking it for a cruise missile.
“We were prepared for an all-out conflict,” he said.
Khamenei expressed his “deep sympathy” to the families of the victims and called on the armed forces to “pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident.”
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.
The shoot down of the plane and the lack of transparency around it, along with the restrained response to the killing of Soleimani, could reignite anger at the country’s leadership.
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported that the supreme leader on Friday morning had ordered top security officials to review the crash and announce the results.
“If some individuals, in any position, were aware of the issue but made statements contradicting the reality or hid the truth for any reason, they should be named and tried,” said Fars, which is close to the Guard.
Others speculated that the security forces may have concealed information from civilian authorities.
“Concealing the truth from the administration is dreadful,” Mohammad Fazeli, a sociology professor in Tehran, wrote on social media. “If it had not been concealed, the head of civil aviation and the government spokesmen would not have persistently denied it.”
“Concealing the truth for three days is dangerous,” he added.
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.
According to Reuters when the unrest broke out Khamenei instructed the country’s security forces to do whatever was necessary to quell the protests. The news agency cited several senior unnamed Iranian officials.
In December a group of independent UN rights experts said Iranian security forces were deliberately shooting to kill the unarmed protesters.
Iranian officials have accused the United States, Israel and several European countries of fomenting the nationwide protests, which saw some demonstrators burning the photograph of Khamenei and calling for a return of the Shah, Iran’s previous leader.