There is increasing ill feeling between the Iranian government and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps over last week’s downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet, with a government spokesman on Monday accusing the military of deceiving political leaders about what really happened to the plane, according to a report from the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.
Popular anger has swelled at the Iranian government’s attempt to conceal its role in the airliner tragedy, with days of protests and several prominent Iranians critiquing the regime.
Iran initially claimed the plane crashed last Wednesday, killing all 176 on board, due to engine failure, but over the weekend admitted that it had been shot down after being mistaken for a hostile aircraft.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei indicated the military had at first misled rulers over what actually happened to the airliner.
”All relevant authorities had assured us that there had been no missile involved in the downing of the Ukrainian plane,” Rabiei said in the report.
The Ukrainian Airlines flight was hit in the hours after Iran fired volleys of missiles at two US bases in Iraq in revenge for the US drone strike killing of top IRGC commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Most of the people aboard the Ukraine International Airlines jet were Iranians and Iranian-Canadians. For three days, Iranian officials ruled out any attack on the plane, suggesting the crash of Flight 752 was caused by a technical failure. Only on Saturday did authorities acknowledge shooting it down, as evidence mounted and after Western leaders accused Iran of culpability.
Rabiei insisted Iran’s civilian officials learned only on Friday that the Revolutionary Guard had shot down the plane. The Guard answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“The point is that we did not lie,” Rabiei said. He went on to blame the US for “spreading the shadow of war over Iran.”
Meanwhile a recording of an IRGC commander speaking to other officers, published by the Iranian opposition site Pyk Net, appeared to show that the unit’s leaders are angry at the government for so quickly putting responsibility for the incident on the Guards.
“The statement by the government admitting the cause of air crash was disgraceful,” the officer said according to the Telegraph, citing the recording. “The statement should not have blamed the entire Revolutionary Guard and could have just said it was the fault of one individual.”
This commander suggested the government could have waited “two or three months” before revealing the cause of crash so that the Guards could continue to enjoy public support over the missile attack on two US bases in Iraq.
“The November protests were caused by the Rouhani government but the Revolutionary Guard sacrificed itself and put them down, but this time the government is so passive in the face of the attacks on the Revolutionary Guard,” the commander said, referring to demonstrations sparked by fuel price hikes late last year. Amnesty International estimated that some 300 people were killed by Iranian security forces as they suppressed nationwide protests. The Reuters news agency estimated 1,500 were killed.
Rouhani has been at odds with the Guards for years, the newspaper report said. Whereas he supports diplomacy with the West, the Guards want isolation.
Many Iranians, already suffering under crippling US sanctions, expressed shock and outrage over the plane crash that killed scores of young people. They also decried the misleading statements from top officials.
For a growing number of critics — from ordinary citizens to notable athletes and artists — the events have revealed a government that is incapable of following through on its incendiary rhetoric and willing to mislead its own people about a national tragedy in order to avoid embarrassment. In addition to the street protests, Iran’s government has also faced harsh criticism from prominent artists, athletes and journalists.
A number of artists, including famed director Masoud Kimiai, withdrew from an upcoming international film festival. And two state TV hosts have resigned in protest over the false reporting about what happened to Flight 752.
Gelare Jabbari, an Iranian state television anchor who resigned, said: “It was very hard for me to believe the killing of my countrymen. I apologize for lying to you on TV for 13 years,” the Telegraph reported.
Taraneh Alidoosti, one of Iran’s most famous actresses, posted a picture of a black square on Instagram with the caption: “We are not citizens. We are hostages. Millions of hostages.”
Saeed Maroof, the captain of Iran’s national volleyball team, also wrote on Instagram: “I wish I could be hopeful that this was the last scene of the show of deceit and lack of wisdom of these incompetents but I still know it is not.”
He said that despite Iran’s national team qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after years of effort, “there is no energy left in our sad and desperate souls to celebrate.”
Sentiments first boiled over late Saturday, shortly after the Revolutionary Guard admitted to shooting the plane down by mistake. A candlelight vigil at a university rapidly turned into an anti-government demonstration.
“They are lying that our enemy is America! Our enemy is right here!” students shouted.
On Sunday night, protesters massed in Tehran’s Azadi, or Freedom, Square.
The IRGC, which has enormous power in Iran, has also in the past rattled Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Zarif reportedly resigned his position last year after Soleimani met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in talks the minister felt should have been his responsibility. Rouhani rejected Zarif’s resignation.