‘Apologise and resign’: Teargas fired as anti-government protests grip Iran after plane crash cover-up

Officials will fear resurgence of widespread unrest that rocked country in months before Soleimani’s killing

Andy Gregory
Sunday 12 January 2020 16:01 GMT
Anti-government protests grip Iran after plane crash cover-up

Pressure continues to pile on the Iranian regime as furious anti-government protesters take to the streets for a second day and newspapers join the calls for justice over the military’s “unintentional” shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger flight.

Thousands of protesters braved the threat of violent repression or incarceration amid a heavy riot police presence in several cities, many demanding the resignation of president Hassan Rouhani and criticising Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei with chants of “death to the dictator."

In Tehran, sizeable crowds overcame authorities’ efforts to block off Azadi (Freedom) Square. Security forces later resorted to tear gassing those assembled there. Some violence broke out in the square as special forces and militia members attacked protesters and fired rubber bullets.

Their fury was further amplified on Sunday as Iran’s moderate daily newspaper Etemad ran a headline saying those responsible for the plane crash – which killed 176 people – and the subsequent cover-up, should “apologise and resign”. The paper called this “the people’s demand”.

The tragic incident, and the regime’s handling of it, appears to have subdued the outpouring of national unity which followed the Trump-ordered assassination of top general Qassem Soleimani.

In contrast to the anti-US sentiment displayed during Soleimani’s vast memorial proceedings, social media footage showed protesters taking pains not to step on American and Israeli flags painted on a walkway, with others chanting: “Our enemy is right here, they are lying that it’s America.”

Iranian officials will fear a resurgence of the widespread protests that raged in the months before Soleimani’s killing, thought to be the largest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Sparked by opposition to a fuel price hike amid dangerously punitive US sanctions, the protests grew into a major revolt against corruption, poverty and the regime’s incorrigible nature.

The government’s brutal attempts at repression are believed to have taken the lives of between 300 and 1,500 people, but an internet shutdown obscured much about the protests, including their death toll.

On Sunday morning, despite only numbering in their hundreds, dissidents gathered at university campuses in several cities, including Isfahan, while calls circulated for larger protests later in the day.

In addition to black-suited riot police, Revolutionary Guard members patrolled the capital on motorbikes in an apparent effort to deter the sizeable protests that would eventually emerge, while plain-clothes security forces also monitored the streets.

The demonstrators’ efforts and bravery were lauded by Donald Trump, who launched a brazen attempt to paint himself as an ally of the Iranian people – and further undermine the country’s leadership – days after pushing the country to the brink of conflict and threatening to commit war crimes by destroying Iranian cultural sites.

“I’ve stood with you since the beginning of my presidency, and my administration will continue to stand with you. We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage,” Mr Trump tweeted in Farsi.

“The government of Iran must allow human rights groups to monitor and report facts from the ground on the ongoing protests by the Iranian people. There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching.”

While his call for human rights to be observed were welcomed, the US president was also accused of gross hypocrisy.

“Only on planet Trump can you ban Iranians from visiting their family in the US, deny them access to life-saving drugs, threaten to bomb their cultural heritage, and then claim that you are in solidarity with them,” said London School of Economics’ Roham Alvandi, an associate professor of international history specialising in Iran.

Trump's defence secretary Mark Esper admits he 'didn't see' evidence of imminent threat from Iran

Meanwhile, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Salami, apologised profusely for his forces shooting down Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, saying: “I have never been so ashamed in my life.

“I would have liked to have been in that plane and to have crashed and burned with them rather than bear witness to this tragic event.”

But Mr Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, blamed the region’s turbulence on “the corruptive presence of the US and its cohorts” during a visit from Qatar’s visiting ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Mr Khamenei urged greater cooperation between Middle Eastern nations as “the only way to deal with it”.

It came hours after US defence secretary Mark Esper admitted he “didn’t see” the evidence of imminent threats to four US embassies claimed by Mr Trump as justification for killing Soleimani.

European leaders sustained their efforts to contain the fallout from the Quds force commander’s killing on Sunday, with Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel issuing a joint statement urging Iran to return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

However, the protests in Tehran also inadvertently saw UK-Iranian relations take a sour turn, after the British ambassador Rob Macaire was briefly arrested at the protests on Saturday, which began as a vigil.

The UK said its envoy was detained “without grounds or explanation” and in “flagrant violation of international law”.

Condemning the arrest, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said Iran “can continue its march towards pariah status ... or take steps to de-escalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards”.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi later tweeted that Mr Macaire was arrested “as an unknown foreigner in an illegal gathering” and was released when authorities realised who he was.

A member of Iran’s parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, accused the ambassador of organising protests and called for his expulsion.

A small group of Iranians later gathered outside the British Embassy, chanting “death to England” and calling for the ambassador’s expulsion and the embassy’s closure. Police stood guard outside the facility.

Iranian media, meanwhile, focused on the regime’s admission of responsibility for the crash, with several newspapers calling for those responsible to apologise and resign.

The hardline daily Vatan-e Emrooz bore the front-page headline ”A sky full of sadness”, while the Hamshahri daily went with “Shame”, and the Iran daily said “Unforgivable.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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