Both events fit into a well-established pattern. Though the regime in Tehran has killed Americans over the years, it has usually tried to avoid direct responsibility for doing so, mainly by operating through proxies. And when world attention is focused on it, as is now the case, the Iranian government actually places a priority on not killing Americans.
By contrast, Iranian leaders almost always consider their own people to be expendable.
The decision to not target Americans in the missile attacks is strong evidence of the calculated nature of the regime’s responses to major threats. The terrible blunder that followed — and the government’s handling of the shoot-down and its aftermath — shows how little the regime values the lives of ordinary Iranian people.
This is not new.
The founders of the Islamic republic have used American hostages to gain concessions from the very early days of their rule. It started with the U.S. Embassy hostages in 1979 and continues today. The catch and release of U.S. sailors in January 2016, just as the now-moribund nuclear deal was taking effect, showed how protective they can be with individual Americans when it fits their agenda.
Guarding the lives of Iranians has never been a priority.
During the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), Iran’s leaders threw hundreds of thousands of boys at the front lines in attempts to slow Saddam Hussein’s advance into Iran’s territory; sometimes it used them as human minesweepers. And in the years since, it has expended countless more in a variety of military adventures outside the country.
The completely avoidable shoot-down of the Ukrainian airliner offers just another reminder of how careless this regime is with the lives of its own citizens.
At first, Iran’s head of civil aviation claimed it was impossible that the accident was caused by a missile. Within hours, a top adviser of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened Iranian journalists working abroad to not blame the authorities in the Islamic republic for the crash.
All the while, these officials knew full well that the Iranian military was at fault.
Early on Saturday, after several days of adamant denials, Iranian officials finally accepted responsibility for mistakenly targeting the flight. Mounting evidence was proving too hard to ignore.
The authorities chalked it up to “human error,” but they couldn’t stop themselves from blaming the tensions stoked by the U.S. assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
The blunder is already backfiring on Tehran at one of the most critical moments the regime has ever faced.
Within hours, Iranians began showing up at various sites in the country to protest the ineptitude of the regime. The airliner fiasco demonstrated a catastrophic failure by the military that Iranians should be able to depend upon to defend their country.
How Iranian security forces respond to new protests will be a key factor in determining the future of the regime. If they attempt to suppress this public anger over an act of senseless aggression that killed 176 innocent people, they will exacerbate their already massive credibility problem.
A more conciliatory action could lead to a short-term cooling of tensions, but it would also be an expression of weakness, something a regime that claims to draw its leadership from the divine is loath to do. There have been precious few instances in the Islamic republic’s 40-year history when authorities have admitted mistakes.
This time around, the regime will continue to try to blame the United States, but that refrain rings increasingly hollow. While the Trump administration’s policy has created a challenging atmosphere, it is not responsible for this event.
This is a make-or-break moment for the regime.
It doesn’t mean the government is about to collapse. Anyone who believes that is foolish. But it creates an indelible blemish.
In a certain way it also negates a comparable event 31 years ago, when a U.S. Navy ship shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in a similarly tragic moment of human error. The regime in Tehran has used that episode as proof of American animus toward Iran ever since. It is equally culpable, though, of killing scores of innocents by mistake in a moment of high tensions
Now is the perfect moment for the Trump administration to start making good on its repeated claims that it stands with the Iranian people. Unfortunately, though, President Trump and his foreign policy advisers have so far proved just as deaf to their needs as the government in Tehran.