After days of protests this week that once more turned violent, Iranian authorities still haven’t offered an adequate response to angry public calls for accountability over the downing of a commercial airplane in Tehran.
Since January 11, when Iran finally admitted it “unintentionally” fired surface-to-air missiles at Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 killing all 176 onboard, protestors and mourners have poured into the streets and universities of Tehran and several other cities, including Isfahan, Mashhad, Yazd, and Rasht. The majority of passengers were Iranian, many of whom held dual nationalities, mostly from Canada.
The plane was shot down as a result of “human error” just hours after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq housing US troops. The attacks against the bases were Tehran’s response to the assassination of its top military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad by the United States.
While the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) aerospace division Amir Ali Hajizadeh said he accepts full responsibility and awaits instructions by higher ups in the Iranian government, the public has yet to see any tangible repercussions.
Iran’s most serious response yet to the downing of the airplane came on January 14 when the judiciary spokesman announced that “several arrests have been made” without offering further details as investigations are still newly underway.
President Hassan Rouhani vowed in a televised address on the same day that a thorough investigation will be made into the “unforgivable error” of shooting down the plane, and called for a special court with ranking judge and experts to form.
“This is not an ordinary case. The entire world will be watching this court,” the president said.
But as evidenced by protests in the streets and discourse on social media, the public is not convinced.
“So many lives have been lost so tragically but I don’t think anybody in the upper echelons will pay for it,” said Maryam, a 29-year-old teacher who joined protestors in Tehran’s Azadi Square on January 12 and 13.
“They’ve shown many times over that they latch on to power and their titles at any cost, despite the deaths of so many people, which I think is what has made many like me feel that their lives are not worth much in the eyes of those in power,” she told this author.
Even as rumors are circulating on social media, no officials have offered to resign or been fired yet. The Supreme National Security Council was also forced on January 13 to react and deny that its secretary Ali Shamkhani will step down.
Angry protestors have continued to gather in major universities in the capital, including Sharif, Tehran, and Beheshti universities.
Videos posted on social media show that protestors’ slogans quickly targeted those in the highest positions of power in the Islamic Republic. They called for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to step down, chastised the IRGC, and demanded a referendum to put a faulty constitution to vote.
“Clerics get lost!” they shouted, and “don’t call me seditionist, you the oppressor are the sedition,” in reference to the 2009 Green Movement that was ultimately cracked down by the establishment.
Police in anti-riot gear responded to protestors by firing tear gas, even in a metro station, from the first day, on January 11. Videos also show rubber bullets being fired and there are unconfirmed reports that live rounds have been discharged, wounding several protestors. Internet access was temporarily restricted in areas where protestors had gathered.
Tehran’s police chief on January 13 denied that police have fired on protestors, saying, “police absolutely did not shoot because the capital’s police officers have been given orders to show restraint.” But contrary to his comment, a video posted on social media shows bloodstained sidewalks and several injured protesters.
It took Iranian authorities three days to admit to the downing of PS752. In those days, local media swarmed the public with statements from officials and analyses that said it would be virtually impossible for the Ukraine International Airlines flight to have been hit by a missile.
“I prayed it wouldn’t be true that they hit the plane but in the end it turned out we were fed three days of brazen lies by media that acted like a propaganda machine,” 36-year-old general physician Rasoul told this author.
In this vein, many Iranians are also frustrated since they believe—in an utter distrust of the system—that authorities would cover up the missile launch if they had the chance.
“Imagine this airplane was a local flight. That it was going from Tehran to Mashhad, Isfahan or Shiraz and all its passengers were Iranian. That way this secret would stay buried forever and officials would feign innocence and cite sanctions and technical difficulties,” tweeted journalist Saeide Eslamie.
That sentiment was even echoed by Tehran MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, who has just been disqualified from participating in the upcoming parliamentary elections in February.
The public also has a hard time believing claims that Khamenei and Rouhani had no knowledge of the IRGC shooting down of the airplane until January 10, after which they directed officials to make a transparent admission.
Mehdi Karroubi, a Green Movement opposition leader under house arrest since 2011, issued a scathing public statement saying the Supreme Leader is not fit for leadership regardless.
“If you knew [of the missile] and allowed military, security and propaganda officials to deceive the people knowingly, then woe on you since you undoubtedly lack any of the required qualifications for leadership according to the constitution,” Karroubi wrote.
“And if you were not aware,” he continued, “please tell us what kind of ‘commander-in-chief of all forces’ you are, whom they play around.”
Addressing the parliament on January 12, IRGC Commander Hossein Salami said “no one would know” that a missile hit flight PS752 if the elite force had not disclosed the information.
The Iranian government spokesman also said on January 14 that “the fact is that we did not lie” as the administration was in the dark.
Recent nationwide protests in Iran during November 2019, which quickly turned bloody, were clearly still fresh in the minds of the grieving protestors.
“We will die, we will die, we will take Iran back,” students chanted in Tehran University on January 14.
In November, when the Rouhani government abruptly tripled the price of gasoline as part of rationing program aimed at cutting state subsidies, tens of thousands of mostly low to middle-income Iranians took to the streets to protest in dozens of cities and towns. Their purchasing power had already been slashed in the wake of punitive US sanctions imposed after US President Donald Trump left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and local mismanagement.
The Iranian government cut off internet access across the country and responded brutally, killing at least 304, according to Amnesty International. The death toll was much higher at around 1,500, according to a Reuters report. Iranians have been concerned about another internet blackout ever since.
This week, some also used the protests to show their opposition to an endeavor by authorities to paint “martyred” Major General Soleimani as a national hero who fought tirelessly to safeguard Iranian borders.
Several videos showed people taking down, burning and trampling Soleimani posters that have been erected all over the country since his assassination on January 3.
“Just don’t shoot us for 12 hours! So we will show you what a grand funeral procession and resurrection look like!” one user tweeted.
“Do you see us? This crowd is only a fraction of the silent people who were not seen during last week’s helicopter shots of the [Soleimani] funeral processions,” another wrote in reference to the massive coverage of the processions on state television.
Protests this week have also inspired Iranian celebrities to react in solidarity with the people.
“I fought this thought for a long time and didn’t want to accept it: we are not citizens, we never were. We are captives. Millions of captives,” Taraneh Alidoosti, who starred in the Academy Award-winning film, The Salesman, wrote on her Instagram account accompanied with a black image—a sign of mourning.
Alidoosti, along with several other artists, including director Masoud Kimiai, have announced they will boycott the upcoming Fajr International Film Festival in protest of the downing of the airplane.
In a rare move, long-time state television host Gelare Jabbari resigned, saying it took her a long time to believe the system was killing Iranians.
“Forgive me for lying to you on Iranian state television for 13 years,” she wrote.
This piece was written anonymously by a Tehran-based journalist.