Saturday, January 11, the first day of the week in Iran’s calendar, has been a very long day for Iranians. I write these lines as the morning after has already dawned. The day started with the Iranian armed forces publicly accepting responsibility for shooting down the Ukrainian airliner, Flight 752, as covered by IranWire earlier today.
The government’s shocking announcement has led to a mass outpouring of anger. Much of the anger was aired on social media before leading to mass protests in Tehran later in the day.
The shooting down of the passenger plane is already being billed as Iran’s Chernobyl moment, the 1986 disaster in the Soviet Ukraine which exposed all the incompetence, state deception and rot in that regime. The plane crash saga has done the same for the Islamic Republic and users on social media have been pointing to some of its possible implications.
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.
“What makes me cry more than anything is that, if many of the passengers didn’t hold other citizenships, this horrible truth wouldn’t have been exposed,”one user said.
Pointing to the red flags that were raised for the slain Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Soleimani, during the public demonstrations and funeral following his assassination in a US airstrike on January 3rd, and Iran’s promises of revenge, another user posted a picture of those who died on the flight and asked: “Who will take revenge for these beautiful people? Where can we raise red flags for them?”
Many tweets were more overt in their anger. One user used expletives and dared the government to do what it recently did to quell nationwide protests: “Cut the internet! Send the IRGC and Basij forces against the people!”
More prominent figures and commentators inside and outside Iran have also been adding their criticism to the rising chorus. From his detention in Tehran, Mehdi Karroubi, a leader of the 2009 opposition Green Movement, called on the commander-in-chief, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to resign, arguing that he lacks the basic qualifications to be the country’s leader..
Yaser Mirdamadi, an Islamic Studies scholar in London who happens to be Khamenei’s cousin, has offered a number of arguments suggesting that the Islamic Republic cares more for the lives of foreigners than its own citizens. For instance, the fact that the Revolutionary Guards missile attacks on US bases in Iraq last week carefully avoided causing any US casualties. Or the fact that the civilian flights of many countries in the region (Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain) seem to have been cancelled during the Middle East crisis whereas flights in Iranian airspace itself were allowed to continue.
On the streets
A vigil for the victims of Flight 752 had been called for 5:30pm in front of Tehran’s Amir Kabir University, an institution with a history of dissent. According to an eyewitness account shared with IranWire from Tehran, people started gathering even before 5pm and the vigil quickly led to mass protests.
The chants became radicalized and political as the protests went on.
“Incompetent authorities must resign!” was one of the early chants; in turn, it was quickly followed by a question from the crowd: “Who is their resignation good for? They should be tried.” Chants of “Resignation is not enough, trials should be held” were the result.
But where should the buck stop? Many beyond Karroubi have dared to go all the way to the top, to the country’s Supreme leader.
“All these years of crimes! Down with this Supreme Leader!” was a slogan that rang out late in the protest. “We didn’t lose lives to praise the murderer leader,” was another.
Plainclothes officers were seen around the protests and they were met with massive jeers and expletives from the gathered people.
With hundreds killed during last year’s Iran-wide November protests, Iranians are aware of the high stakes involved in any fresh demonstrations. IranWire’s eyewitness report some of the conversations on the streets today.
“This time, even if they kill us all, we won’t go home, they must resign,” one protester said.
A young man accompanied by his concerned mother bitterly likened himself to Pouya Bakhtiari, the 27-year-old man who had gone to the protests with his mother and was shot dead by security forces, becoming a symbol for demonstrators around the country.
Unlike those protests, which were led by people suffering economic hardship, many of them in smaller cities, this time the middle classes have ignited the protests. Many speak of the need for unity between the working and middle classes to lead a viable and representative opposition movement.
Flight 752 has instantly become a national tragedy – and a source of national shame – that has caused even Iranian celebrities to join the vigil and to voice their anver through social media. The banned director Jafar Panahi, widely recognized as one of Iran’s most important and internationally renowned filmmakers, attended the vigil today along with actresses such as Hedye Tehrani, Parastoo Salehi and Hanie Tavasolli.
As the crowd of the Islamic Republic’s victims grows larger and larger, the rank of those standing against it also grows.