Iran protesters take to the streets over shooting down of Ukrainian airliner
Protesters took to the streets of Tehran on Saturday night after the regime was forced into the embarrassing admission that it accidentally shot down a civilian airliner.
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 announcement was met with fury on the streets of Tehran, where crowds of students gathered to denounce the Revolutionary Guard. “Shame on you,” the protesters shouted. “End your rule over the country.”
The surging anger over the crash and the days of false denials comes at a sensitive moment in Iran and just weeks after the regime’s forces killed hundreds of civilians while crushing nationwide protests.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei quickly insisted he was not responsible for misleading the public about the real cause of the Ukraine 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 also seizing the moment to push blame towards its hardline rivals inside the Revolutionary Guard.
Hesamedin Ashena, an advisor to Mr Rouhani, said the Revolutionary Guard had “cheated” the public by denying its involvement in 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 the public funeral of Qassim Soleimani, one of the force’s top leaders, and many celebrated Iran’s missile barrage against the US.
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the same commander who triumphantly took credit for the missile attack on US forces in Iraq on Wednesday, appeared looking forlorn in front of state television cameras yesterday to take responsibility for his men’s mistake.
“When I learned 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 ten seconds to decide. He could have decided to strike or not to strike and under such circumstances he took the wrong decision,” Gen Hajizadeh.
Despite the show of transparency, Iran was still facing serious questions over how it could have shot the aircraft down early on Wednesday yet still insisted until Friday night that the crash had been the result of engine failure or some other mechanical problem.
There was also confusion over whether the government tried to halt civilian flights after the missile attack, with the Revolutionary Guard saying it called for the grounding of civilian aircraft but aviation authorities saying they received no such order.
Mr Rouhani promised Iran would continue to investigate the crash and suggested his government would prosecute those responsible.
“The armed forces’ internal investigation has concluded that 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.
Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people.
Investigations continue to identify & prosecute this great tragedy & unforgivable mistake. #PS752— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) January 11, 2020
The Iranian president was due to speak to Volodymyr Zelensky, his Ukrainian counterpart, about the disaster on Saturday. Ukraine said it was heartened by Iran’s admission of responsibility but Mr Zelensky also demanded that Iran “bring the guilty to the courts” as well as pay compensation.
“We hope the inquiry will be pursued without deliberate delay and without obstruction,” he said.
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.”
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, which said the flight maintained a normal course after it left Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport at 6.12am.
In the flight’s final moments it was far from its planned trajectory and heading in the wrong direction. But analysts said that was likely because it had veered out of control after being struck by the missile and flown a wide arc before crashing.
Logs showed that at least eight other flights took off from the airport inbetween the time Iran fired its missile barrage and the shootdown of flight PS752 and that flights resumed again just over an hour after the crash.
(c) The Telegraph