By Suzanne Maloney
When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led prayers at Tehran’s Grand Mosque for the first time in eight years on Friday, Iran’s supreme leader described the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Fight 752 by his military as a “bitter accident”—one that enemies abroad were exploiting as an excuse to discredit the Islamic Republic. But the real threat to the regime, which has spent decades trying to cement its rule, is the discontent of the Iranian public. Both the plane crash on January 8 and the cover-up that followed struck at the heart of the grievances that shape Iranians’ anger toward and alienation from their government. And if the demise of Flight 752 revealed the government’s malign disregard for its own citizens, its relentless suppression of the subsequent protests has only underscored its imperviousness to any meaningful accountability.
After decades of international sanctions that hamper Iran’s ability to buy new aircraft and spare parts, the country’s plane fleet is notoriously old and prone to catastrophe—so much so that the early reports citing engine problems sounded plausible. But the early explanations for the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 quickly crumbled under the weight of obvious falsehoods. In reality, Flight 752 had been downed by Iran’s own air defenses. In the course of retaliating against the United States for the drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, Iranian military commanders apparently mistook the jetliner for an incoming American cruise missile. But this tragedy never would have occurred had Tehran taken the obvious precaution of halting civilian air traffic as it began missile strikes against U.S. forces in Iraq. Iranian leaders declined to take this step. Citing unnamed sources, the London-based Persian-language news channel Iran International, which is frequently critical of the Iranian government, reported that officials believed the presence of civilian aircraft in the skies would deter any possible U.S. counterattacks.
Vigils for the 176 victims of the crash—most of whom were Iranian citizens or dual nationals—almost immediately morphed into defiant anti-regime protests in cities across the country. Only days before, millions had marched through the streets to commemorate Soleimani, the powerful Iranian commander whose killing had precipitated the latest escalation of U.S.-Iranian tensions. Suddenly, instead of government-orchestrated marches echoing with the refrain “Death to America,” young Iranians rushed to the streets to castigate their own leadership as liars and heap scorn on the security forces. The depth of public fury surprised many outside observers.
Soleimani’s killing on January 3, and the cycle of escalation that it precipitated, has tended to overshadow the price that ordinary Iranians have already paid in this latest round of Tehran’s long-running conflict with Washington—a price far greater than that paid by their ostensible enemies. A stampede amid a funeral procession for Soleimani in the Iranian city of Kerman killed more than 50 Iranians and wounded several hundred. Those losses, and the deaths of the Flight 752 passengers, come only two months after government security forces killed perhaps as many as 1,500 Iranians during unrest that erupted in November. All of these events speak to a long history of suffering that has been brought upon Iranians as much by their own leaders as by their adversaries.
In the successive waves of unrest that have shaken Iran over the past few years, protesters have agitated for a government that prioritizes the basic needs of the citizens ahead of the rulers’ ideological imperatives. Some have concluded that Iran’s pursuit of regional power—including its support of proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah—has come at the expense of the country’s development. “Not Gaza, not Lebanon,” declares one increasingly common slogan. “I sacrifice myself for Iran.”
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