Iranian protests: A sudden shift from U.S. to Iran's leaders

Iranians protested in the streets this weekend after Iran's military denied, then admitted to shooting down a Ukraine-bound airliner by mistake. 

Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
A candlelight vigil Saturday turned into a protest march. Here, a memorial to one of the 176 victims of the Boeing 737-800 aircraft shot down by the Iranian military in Tehran, Iran January 11, 2020.

Iranian demonstrators defied a heavy police presence Sunday night to protest their country's days of denials that it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane carrying 176 people, the latest unrest to roil the capital amid soaring tensions with the United States.

Iranian security forces fired both live ammunition and tear gas to disperse demonstrators protesting against the Islamic Republic's initial denial that it shot down a Ukrainian jetliner, online videos purported to show Monday. Other videos suggested similar protests were taking place in other Iranian cities.

Videos sent to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran and later verified by The Associated Press show a crowd of demonstrators near Azadi, or Freedom, Square fleeing as a tear gas canister landed among them. People cough and sputter while trying to escape the fumes, with one woman calling out in Farsi: “They fired tear gas at people! Azadi Square. Death to the dictator!”

Another video shows a woman being carried away in the aftermath as a blood trail can be seen on the ground. Those around her cry out that she has been shot by live ammunition in the leg.

Protesters often wore hoods and covered their faces, probably to avoid being recognized by surveillance cameras. Tehran's police chief, Gen. Hossein Rahimi, denied his officers opened fire though the semiofficial Fars news agency said police “shot tear gas in some areas.”

Meanwhile, in an emotional speech before parliament, the head of the Revolutionary Guard apologized for the shooting and insisted it was a tragic mistake.

“I swear to almighty God that I wished I was on that plane and had crashed with them and burned but had not witnessed this tragic incident,” said Gen. Hossein Salami. “I have never been this embarrassed in my entire life. Never.”

Iran's state-run media, as well as semiofficial news agencies and publications, did not immediately report on the demonstrations. However, international rights groups already have called on Iran to allow people to protest peacefully as allowed by the country's constitution.

“After successive national traumas in a short time period, people should be allowed to safely grieve and demand accountability,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Iranians shouldn’t have to risk their lives to exercise their constitutional right to peaceful assembly.”

Riot police in black uniforms and helmets earlier massed in Vali-e Asr Square, at Tehran University and other landmarks. Revolutionary Guard members patrolled the city on motorbikes, and plainclothes security men were also out in force. People looked down as they walked briskly past police, hoping not to draw attention to themselves.

The plane crash early Wednesday killed everyone on board, mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians. After initially pointing to a technical failure and insisting the armed forces were not to blame, authorities on Saturday admitted accidentally shooting it down in the face of mounting evidence and accusations by Western leaders.

Iran downed the flight as it braced for possible American retaliation after firing ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces. The missile attack, which caused no casualties, was a response to the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran's top general, in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad. But no retaliation came.

Iranians have expressed anger over the downing of the plane and the misleading explanations from senior officials in the wake of the tragedy. They are also mourning the dead, which included many young people who were studying abroad.

“Even talking about it makes my heart beat faster and makes me sad,” said Zahra Razeghi, a Tehran resident. “I feel ashamed when I think about their families.”

"The denial and covering up the truth over the past three days greatly added to the suffering and pain of the families, and me,” she added.

Another individual, who identified himself only as Saeed, said Iran's largely state-run media had concealed the cause of the crash for “political reasons.”

“Later developments changed the game, and they had to tell the truth," he said.

Earlier Sunday, hundreds of students gathered at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University to mourn the victims and protest against authorities for concealing the cause of the crash, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.

Bahareh Arvin, a reformist member of the Tehran City Council, took to social media to say she was resigning in protest at the government's lies and corruption. "With the current mechanism, there is no hope of reform," she said.

Some Iranian artists, including famed director Masoud Kimiai, withdrew from an upcoming international film festival. Two state TV hosts resigned in protest over the false reporting about the cause of the plane crash.

At earlier protests Saturday, students in Tehran shouted: “They are lying that our enemy is America! Our enemy is right here!” Another Fars video showed demonstrators on Sunday night tearing down a poster of Soleimani in Tehran.

Ali Rabiei, a government spokesman, insisted Iran's civilian officials only learned Friday that the Guard shot down the plane.

“The point is that we did not lie,” Rabiei said. He went onto blame the U.S. for “spreading the shadow of war over Iran.”

Javad Kashi, a professor of politics at Tehran Allameh University, wrote online that people should be allowed to express their anger in public protests. “Buckled under the pressure of humiliation and being ignored, people poured into the streets with so much anger," he wrote. "Let them cry as much as they want.”

There's also been a cultural outpouring of grief and anger from Iran's creative community. 

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 the qualification of Iran's national team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after years of efforts, “there is no energy left in our sad and desperate souls to celebrate.”

Meanwhile, another video making the rounds showed the national symbol of Iran, four crescents and a sword in the shape of a water lily flying through what appeared to be a 1980s-style video game like “Galaga." Music chimes when it touches oil as it fires on symbols representing people, knowledge and ultimately an airplane.

“To be continued,” the caption at the end of the clip reads

President Donald Trump, who has expressed support for past waves of anti-government demonstrations in Iran, addressed the country's leaders in a tweet, saying “DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS.” He later tweeted the same message again in Farsi.

“The World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching,” he tweeted.

Iranians demonstrated in November after the government hiked gas prices, holding large protests across the nation. The government shut down internet access for days, making it difficult to gauge the scale of the protests and the subsequent crackdown. Amnesty International later said more than 300 people were killed.

A candlelight ceremony late Saturday in Tehran turned into a protest, with hundreds of people chanting against the country's leaders — including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and police dispersing them with tear gas. Protests were also held in the city of Isfahan and elsewhere.

Police briefly detained the British ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, who said he went to the vigil without knowing it would turn into a protest.

“Can confirm I wasn’t taking part in any demonstrations!” he tweeted. “Went to an event advertised as a vigil for victims of #PS752 tragedy. Normal to want to pay respects — some of victims were British. I left after 5 mins, when some started chanting.”

He said he was arrested 30 minutes after leaving the area.

Britain said its envoy was detained “without grounds or explanation” and in “flagrant violation of international law.”

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi later tweeted that Macaire was arrested “as an unknown foreigner in an illegal gathering."

Araghchi said when police informed him that a man was arrested who claimed to be the British ambassador, he didn't believe them. But he said that once he spoke to Macaire by phone, he realized it was him, and that the ambassador was freed 15 minutes later.

Iran's Foreign Ministry later summoned the British ambassador over his ”illegal and inappropriate presence" at the protest, it said on its Telegram channel.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a member of Iran's parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, accused the ambassador of organizing protests and called for his expulsion. Dozens of hard-liners later gathered outside the British Embassy, chanting “Death to England.” They also called for the ambassador to be expelled and the embassy to be closed.

Iranian media, meanwhile, focused on the admission of responsibility for the crash, with several newspapers calling for those responsible to apologize and resign.

The hard-line daily Vatan-e Emrouz bore the front-page headline “A sky full of sadness,” while the Hamshahri daily went with “Shame,” and the IRAN daily said “Unforgivable.”

Mehdi Karroubi, an opposition activist under house arrest, lashed out at Khamenei himself, saying that as commander in chief he was “directly responsible.”

“If you were aware and you let military and security authorities deceive people, then there is no doubt you lack the attributes of constitutional leadership," he said in a statement.

Criticism of the supreme leader is punishable by up to two years in prison.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, four Iraqi soldiers were wounded in a rocket attack Sunday at a base where U.S. personnel were also housed. The Iraqi military did not identify the attackers. 

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.