Fury at air crash cover-up puts Iran’s leaders back on defensive

The Iranian regime had only recently quelled protests, which have flared up again following the revelation that it was behind the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing everyone on board.

Supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) protest as European Union foreign ministers attend an emergency meeting in Brussels, Belgium, January 10, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR)
Supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) protest as European Union foreign ministers attend an emergency meeting in Brussels, Belgium, January 10, 2020.
Inside Iran, the admission by authorities that they accidentally shot down a passenger jet packed with Iranian students last week has shattered a brief moment of unity, putting its leadership on the back foot again after only recently quelling nationwide protests.
The fact that Iran appears to have spent days giving false justifications for the crash, which killed all 176 people on board, added to the anger, sparking protests and a crackdown from the government. Iran’s admission came only after the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia said they had intelligence indicating that the plane was struck by an Iranian missile, which Iran at first vehemently denied.
Domestic backlash from the attempted cover-up is likely to constrain the regime’s freedom to act and erode whatever sympathy Iran had gained from the ramping up of pressure and tensions by the U.S. Crucially, the episode has also undermined confidence in the competence of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, an elite force that’s both feared and revered inside Iran.
“It’s the Chernobyl of the Islamic Republic,” Saeed Leylaz, an economist and onetime adviser to Iran’s only reformist president, Ali Mohammad Khatami, said of Saturday’s revelations. He was referring to the 1986 nuclear disaster in the then Soviet republic of Ukraine, which cratered faith in the Communist Party and is widely seen to have contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
On Saturday, anti-government sentiments reemerged on the streets of Tehran. Crowds that assembled outside Sharif University and Amir Kabir University of Technology to mourn fellow students who lost their lives in the crash quickly turned into protests, with calls for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to resign and for an Iran without the Revolutionary Guard.
“Death to the dictator,” the crowds chanted, according to video recorded at the scene. Police dispersed the protesters amid violent clashes and briefly arrested the U.K. ambassador to Iran, who was present at the vigil-turned-demonstration outside Amir Kabir. Iranian security forces on Sunday were out in force, blocking entrance to key squares and landmarks where anti-government demonstrators might gather.
While there’s no immediate indication that the clerical leadership of the 40-year-old Islamic Republic risks losing power, the revelation has cost them benefits enjoyed from a surge of patriotism, even among opponents, since the U.S. killing on Jan. 2 of Major Gen. Qasem Soleimani, one of the Islamic Republic’s most powerful military figures. The IRGC’s air defense units were responsible for shooting the plane down.
In total, more than 230 civilians have been killed since Iran threatened retaliation for Soleimani’s killing, including 56 dead at a stampede during his funeral. No Americans were killed in Iranian missile strikes on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq, though Iranian media had claimed for days that as many as 80 U.S. troops were killed.
“The establishment has three major problems: corruption, inefficiency and inconsistency, and the plane crash once again laid bare the inefficiency and inconsistency in the system,” Leylaz said.
The crash could change the political backdrop in Iran by raising pressure on the Guardian Council to allow more reformist and competent candidates to stand in parliamentary elections set for Feb. 21, Leylaz said. Conservative parties are currently expected to win back control of the legislature from moderates, setting the tone for a new political cycle before presidential elections next year.
The Guardian Council said in a statement Sunday that it had finished vetting candidates. According to local media reports it excluded dozens of current MPs, most of them moderates, from running again.
U.S. President Donald Trump said the world was now watching Iran’s handling of new street protests, after the regime admitted downing the plane. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his fury and “outrage” over the airliner’s loss, which also killed Canadian citizens.
“The Iranian regime’s inadvertent murder of 176 people _ most of them Iranian _ in the tragic plane accident may limit their ability to further avenge Soleimani’s death,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow in the Middle East program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, in an emailed comment. “Iranians are tired of the cycle of violence and retribution, and are brutally aware that it is Iranian civilians who invariably pay the highest price, not the regime and not the U.S.,’’ he said.
Eighty-two of the 176 people who died on the Ukrainian Boeing 737-800 were Iranian citizens. Authorities had earlier come under fire on social media for encouraging mass funeral processions for Soleimai and then failing to properly organize them, leading to more than 50 dead when mourners overran the small town where he was buried, resulting in a deadly stampede.
The deaths have forced top government officials into rare expressions of public contrition. Attempts to distance Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani from the air crash cover-up, by saying they discovered the truth only late Friday, have at best added to an image of state dysfunction.
“With all of my being I hang my head,” said Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a lengthy condolence message on his Instagram account on Sunday.
An aide to Rouhani, who earlier posted a warning to domestic media on Twitter not to report accusations by Australia, Canada and the U.K. that the passenger airliner was shot down in error shortly after takeoff, said sorry in Koranic verse.
State-run newspapers and the country’s newswire of record, the Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, also wrote public apologies, expressing their remorse at having parroted the government’s lies. Iran’s media had carried scant coverage of the crash since it happened, burying it with wall-to-wall reporting of Soleimani’s funeral ceremonies.
The surge of national outrage at Soleimani’s killing, and of pride in the alleged proficiency of the Iranian retaliation against U.S bases in Iraq, had provided a short-lived boon for the regime. As recently as November it faced widespread anti-government protests that were crushed by security forces using live ammunition, at the cost of hundreds of casualties.
“They would’ve opened fire at people had they not killed a few hundreds in November,” said a woman in her 20s who gave her name only as Zahra, as she fled riot police. “They knew exactly what had happened and who was responsible but made a fool of people for three whole days,” she said of the air disaster.
The universities are emerging as powerful symbols of the anger felt by many young, middle class Iranians in particular. Born well after the revolution and too young to remember the horrors of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, few share the regime’s revolutionary zeal.
Instead their aspirations - involving economic success, foreign travel and education - seem long-thwarted by the Islamic Republic’s 40-year-old ideological war with the U.S., leading to sanctions, international isolation and - most tragically on Wednesday - the deaths of young people flying abroad to pursue those dreams.
On Thursday, the state news channel IRINN aired a lengthy report on pious students at Sharif University, as they shed tears in mourning for Soleimani. The school’s students killed on the flight the previous morning were overlooked.