The outrage was aired first of all on social media forums — before spilling chaotically on to the streets with Saturday’s mass protests catching Iranian authorities off-guard and exposing how many Iranians hold the country’s embattled regime in disdain.
After three days of public denials, the confession Saturday by the Iranian military that it was behind last week’s downing of a Ukrainian airliner sparked fury and demands for the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to resign.
The belated admission — after days of denials — of the unintentional shooting down of the passenger jet, and Khamenei’s promise the culprits will be punished, appears not to have stanched a flood of anger that broke through the narrow limits of criticism Iranian authorities allow. Saturday’s protests come weeks after Iran faced the country's bloodiest unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Dozens are thought to have been killed.
Videos posted on social media showed hundreds of mainly young people gathering to protest at several universities in the Iranian capital. They had come ostensibly to honor the 176 who died when the Iranian military accidentally shot down the airliner, apparently mistaking it for a U.S. cruise missile.
But the protests morphed quickly into anti-regime agitation with calls for Iran’s ‘supreme leader’ to step down amid chants,“ Khamenei is over.” Even more striking was the ripping up of photographs of Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian general killed by the U.S. in a drone strike. “Soleimani is a murderer, his leader a traitor,” some chanted in Tehran.
Saturday’s protests, which were not confined to the Iranian capital, spreading to major cities such as Shiraz, Isfahan, Hamedan and Orumiyeh, shattered the carefully crafted image Iranian authorities have presented to the World of a nation united in grief and anger over the killing of Soleimani, the country’s top general and the reputed strategist behind Iran’s “dirty wars” in the region, say analysts.
Considered to be the most powerful man in Iran after Khamenei, his funeral last week in his native city of Kerman was attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners — in the crush 56 people were killed. The grief expressed by many Iranians for the general was genuine, according to regional experts.“
Such is the culture of reverence for ‘martyrs’ in Iran, going back to the Sunni-Shia schism in the 7th century, and the latent hostility towards America that in death the commander was always going to be elevated to the status of national hero,” former British diplomat Peter Westmacott said.
But the former envoy added, in a commentary for Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper, that Soleimani was a controversial figure in Iran, too, and had been “increasingly attracting criticism at home.”
Disapproval of Soleimani among reform-minded Iranians spilled out publicly Saturday, as anti-government protesters chanted that America is not “our enemy.” Demonstrators carefully avoided walking on U.S. and Israeli flags painted on the street outside one university. Students outside Shahid Beheshti University booed revolutionary guardsmen as they trampled on the painted flags, chanting: “Shame on you."
"Our enemy is right here, they lie saying it's America,” another shouted.
The shooting down of the passenger plane is being billed as Iran’s Chernobyl moment, the 1986 disaster in Soviet Ukraine which exposed all the incompetence, state deception and rot in that regime,” according to Iran Wire, an opposition news site for Iranian citizen journalists.
It said: “There is a widespread sense that Iran’s government was only forced into admitting its responsibility under pressure from governments such as Canada, which lost more than 60 of its citizens in the crash, most of them dual citizens of Iranian background.”
Western analysts say the comparison to the Chernobyl disaster — which is thought to have hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union — goes too far.
Even so, analysts say Iranian authorities are facing possibly their biggest crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Observers note the speed with which senior clerical, political and military leaders appeared to be scrambling to contain the fallout from what President Hassan Rouhani Saturday termed a “disastrous mistake.”
A day earlier, one of Rouhani’s top advisers called assessments by Western intelligence that Iran had shot down the jet “psychological warfare.” Hessameddin Ashna, tweeted, “A warning is given to Iranian nationals working in Persian language media about participating in the psychological warfare related to the Ukrainian airplane.” Ashna said the claims that Iran was behind the shooting down of the plane was just a media “counter-attack” by America.
Notably, criticism of the government isn’t confined to opposition groups and outlets. Iran’s moderate Etemad newspaper wrote in a banner headline Sunday, “Apologize and resign.” It said the “people's demand” was that all those responsible for mishandling the plane crisis should quit.
That appeared to be a direct riposte to Ayatollah Khamenei, who expressed “deep sympathy” to those who died in the downing of the jet but did not apologize, leaving that to other senior officials.
Despite the tough line taken Saturday by police, Sunday saw more anti-government demonstrations. In the town of Sanandaj, according to a video posted online, security forces beat female protesters. In Tehran, a protester tweeted that security forces had blocked roads to try to “stop us from protesting.”
She added: “We’ve managed to get around them. Now there are sounds of gunfire."