Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Iranian cities on Saturday, accusing Iran’s top leaders of being “murderers” after the government admitted that its military had shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet with 176 people on board, including 82 Iranians and at least 57 Canadians.
The protesters in Tehran and other cities were furious that the government failed to shut down Iran’s civilian air space and airports last Wednesday when the military were on high alert for possible incursions by U.S. warplanes. Instead the Ukrainian plane was allowed to take off from Tehran’s airport, followed by its shootdown just minutes later.
The protesters are also angry that the government lied about the cause of the crash for three days, calling it an accident until it finally reversed itself on Saturday and admitted the truth.
“Death to the liars,” the protesters shouted, according to videos and other reports posted on social media. “Dishonorable! Resignation is not enough!”
The protesters took direct aim at Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. “Death to the leader,” they chanted.
They expressed outrage that the Iranian military had carefully avoided any U.S. casualties in its missile attacks on Iraqi military bases where U.S. troops were located, while recklessly shooting down a civilian airplane with Iranians on board.
Many of the protesters were university students, who gathered near Iranian university gates, reflecting the fact that many of the passengers on the Ukrainian jet were students from Iran and Canada.
Iranian security forces responded with tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters. They arrested the British ambassador, Rob Macaire, at one of the demonstrations, reportedly for taking photographs and video of the protests, but released him shortly afterward. Organizers are calling for bigger protests on Sunday.
On social media, many Iranians denounced the airplane shootdown by calling it “Iranian Chernobyl” – a reference to the Soviet Union’s failed attempt to cover up a nuclear disaster in 1986.
The protests are the latest sign of rising discontent with the Iranian government. Just two months ago, thousands of protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against soaring inflation, economic problems and government corruption. Police and security forces killed hundreds of protesters, possibly as many as 1,500 by some estimates, but the protesters on Saturday were undeterred by the risk of another crackdown.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next month in Iran, and the continuing protests could be a foreshadowing of setbacks for the government in those elections.
In another sign of trouble for the government, the latest protests were widely reported in Iran’s state media, which had previously suppressed most reports on protests.
Until the airplane shootdown, Iran had been following a careful strategy of calibrating its response to the U.S. assassination of Iranian military commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Although it retaliated by firing missiles at military bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were based, Iran gave advance warning of the missile strikes, allowing the troops to avoid any casualties.
But the shootdown of the Ukrainian airplane has inflicted heavy damage on Iran’s political strategy and its efforts to gain international support. Paul Ziemiak, a top leader of one of Germany’s biggest political parties, the Christian Democratic Union, told a German newspaper on Friday that sanctions should be imposed on Iran in response to the airplane attack. In another potential threat to Iran’s economy, many global airlines are now avoiding Iranian airspace and airports.
U.S. President Donald Trump voiced his support for the Iranian protestors in several tweets on Saturday, including a tweet in Farsi, the main language of Iran. Addressing the “brave, long-suffering people of Iran,” Mr. Trump said: “We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage.”
He also urged the Iranian government not to “massacre” any protesters or shut down the Internet to block coverage of the protests, as it has done in the past.
The British government protested the arrest of its ambassador at the protests, calling it “a flagrant violation” of international law.
“The Iranian government is at a cross-roads moment,” British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement on Saturday. “It can continue its march towards pariah status with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to de-escalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards.”