Iran’s supreme leader moved to shield himself from rising public anger yesterday as Iranians took to the streets in protest after the Revolutionary Guard admitted accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 aboard.
After three days of officially denying any involvement in the crash, Iran abruptly reversed course and said “human error” had led its forces to shoot down Flight PS752 after mistaking it for a US cruise missile.
The plane, a Boeing 737-800 en route for Kiev, came down shortly after take-off from Tehran, when Iran was alert for US reprisals after launching rockets at US troops in Iraqi bases.
The announcement was met with fury on the streets of Tehran, where crowds of students denounced the Revolutionary Guard. “Shame on you,” the protesters shouted. “End your rule over the country.”
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Demonstrators ripped up pictures of Qasem Soleimani, a prominent Iranian military commander who was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq on January 3.
Iranian strikes on US targets last Wednesday in retaliation for the killing led to the country being on a state of high alert for possible reprisals in the hours when the plane was downed.
On Twitter, videos showed protesters demanding that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei should step down because of the disaster.
In Twitter messages, angry Iranians asked why the plane was allowed to take off with tensions in Iran so high.
“Commander-in-chief resign, resign,” hundreds chanted in front of Tehran’s Amir Kabir university.
The surging anger comes just weeks after the regime’s forces killed hundreds of civilians while crushing nationwide protests.
Khamenei insisted he was not responsible for misleading the public about the real cause of the plane crash and moved to place the blame on the military.
“As soon as the supreme leader was informed of the catastrophic mistake” he ordered the truth to be “made known to the people explicitly and honestly,” the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
In an official statement on his website, he ordered the military to address “shortcomings” and expressed “sincere condolences” but stopped short of apologising for the crash.
There were indications that the relatively moderate circle around Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, was pushing blame towards its hard-line rivals inside the Revolutionary Guard.
Hesamedin Ashena, an adviser to Mr Rouhani, said the Revolutionary Guard had “cheated” the public by denying its involvement in last Wednesday’s disaster.
“What they regarded as news was a lie. What they regarded as a lie was actually the news,” he said. “May God save us from cover-ups.”
The anger directed towards the Revolutionary Guard marked a sharp reversal from earlier in the week, when an estimated million people turned out to Soleimani’s public funeral and many celebrated Iran’s missile barrage against the US.
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander who triumphantly took credit for the missile attack on US forces in Iraq last Wednesday, looked forlorn as he took responsibility for his men’s mistake on state television.
“When I learnt of this error, I wished to die. I accept all responsibility for this,” the general said, in a rare expression of remorse from a senior Revolutionary Guard figure.
He said his forces had been braced for US retaliation to the missiles fired hours earlier and that a single air-defence operator had mistaken the Boeing 737 for an incoming US cruise missile and made the decision to fire.
“He had 10 seconds to decide,” said Gen Hajizadeh.
Mr Rouhani promised Iran would continue to investigate the crash and suggested his government would prosecute those responsible.
“Regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane and death of 176 innocent people. Investigations continue to identify and prosecute this great tragedy and unforgivable mistake,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Iran’s acknowledgement that it shot down the plane was a step in the right direction but he wanted those responsible to be held to account.
Writing on Twitter after speaking to Mr Rouhani, Mr Zelinskiy demanded that the victims be identified and returned to Ukraine at once. “The perpetrators must be held accountable,” he added.
Mr Zelinskiy said Mr Rouhani had apologised on behalf of his country.
One Ukrainian MP compared Iran’s behaviour favourably with Russia’s years of denials that it was responsible for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 despite widespread evidence of Russian involvement.
“Iran has shown itself more civilised than Russia,” said Volodymyr Ariev, a pro-Western MP. “Tehran has admitted its guilt in three days while Russia continues to try to get out of it.”
A senior Trump administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that “Iran’s reckless actions have again had devastating consequences”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Iran’s admission was “an important first step” and that it was “vital that all leaders now pursue a diplomatic way forward” to avoid conflict.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for “a complete and thorough investigation” with Iran’s full co-operation.
The acknowledgement of responsibility will have been especially difficult for Iran because of the legacy of Iran Air 655, a civilian passenger jet accidentally shot down by the US Navy in 1988, killing all 290 aboard.
While the US admitted responsibility and apologised, Iran has long insisted that US forces deliberately shot down the aircraft and the memory of the doomed flight is often invoked by Iranian politicians as a symbol of American brutality.
Tehran now finds itself in the same position the US was 31 years ago as it tries to explain how it could mistake a slow-moving civilian airliner travelling along a normal flight path for an incoming missile attack.
The Revolutionary Guard claimed that the Ukrainian aircraft had turned off its planned course and was heading towards a sensitive military area but that was quickly contradicted by Iran’s civil aviation agency.
Read more: ‘Disastrous mistake’ – protests across Iran after officials admit military shot down Ukrainian plane killing 176
Read more: Ukraine to pay compensation to families of Iran plane crash victims
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Read more: European airlines advised to avoid Iranian airspace until further notice after Ukrainian aircraft shot down earlier this week
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