Early Saturday, Tehran admitted that an Iranian missile downed the Ukrainian plane because of a “human error,” killing all 176 passengers. It was a rare admission for the authoritarian government whose talking points just hours before had dismissed the accusations as “psychological warfare.” Still, much remains at stake.

International implications

The downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 occurred four hours after Iran fired ballistic missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. strike that killed one of Iran’s top military strategists, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

In that tension-filled moment, the operator of an antiaircraft system run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps misidentified the Boeing 737-800, according to Iranian officials.

Analysts say the overwhelming evidence related to the incident had made Iran’s denials increasingly untenable. Now Iran has to calculate its next steps. Already, countries have canceled flights to Iran while demanding a thorough and transparent investigation.

On a diplomatic level, one option is that “the admission of guilt could open up avenues of dialogue,” said Iran scholar Afshon Ostovar, who is an associate chair for research at the Naval Postgraduate School. “I think they could spin this many ways to decrease hostilities."

Iranian officials have at the same time sought to shift some blame toward Washington, citing tensions from Soleimani’s killing. “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster,” tweeted Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister.

Suzanne Maloney, the deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, said she was “doubtful that Iran is going to shift any of its positions in the region” because of the fallout, though she expected more “operational security” in the future.

Legal implications

Aside from Iran, Ukraine and Canada lost the most citizens in the downing of the plane. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for financial compensation for victims.

Plaintiffs perhaps can sue Iran for liability, said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. Criminal charges and liability for keeping the airspace open are also possible, said Tobias, although pursuing such charges would be complicated by jurisdictional issues.

In a similar event in 1988, the U.S. military shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 on board. The United States initially denied involvement but then admitted that a Navy cruiser had mistaken the plane for an Iranian missile. The United States refused to accept liability or apologize, enraging Iranians. Iran sued in the International Court of Justice, and in a settlement, Washington agreed to pay $61.8 million to the families of victims.

Ostovar said Iran may look to this case and aim to “differentiate their response from the U.S. response.” Either way, “they are going to want to scapegoat someone. Who that scapegoat will be, I don’t know.”

Domestic fallout

Above all, Iran’s admission — just days after gloating about what a success its calculated missile counterstrike had been — raises the stakes domestically.

Iran has tried to distance Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from the situation, saying that he learned the truth only on Friday and then insisted on transparency.

None of this has stopped the raw anger.

“Officials misleading the public is as significant and momentous as the disaster itself,” tweeted the editor of Tasnim news, which is affiliated with the IRGC. “Officials who misled the media are guilty too. We are all ashamed.”

Such negative sentiment even led some to take the rare step of protesting against Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard leadership on the streets of Tehran on Saturday.

“Bi-sharraf” — “shameless” — they chanted in Persian. “Death to the liars,” went another chant.

Part of what hurt most, Maloney said, was that Iran had used such precision, care and skill in its retaliatory strike — no casualties were reported, and it was seen as an apparent act of reserve and de-escalation by Iran — and then showed such disregard for the lives of its own citizens.

This compounds a growing sentiment many Iranians already felt about their government, leading to protests in recent months that were put down with lethal force. In addition, some blame the scores of deaths during the Soleimani funeral on poor organization by the government.

All of this leaves Iran — on the edge of war with the United States, embroiled in regional proxy battles, besieged by U.S. sanctions, riddled with claims of corruption, and now facing a domestic backlash — in a precarious position.

Just days ago, many Iranians were united in mourning Soleimani.

Now, Middle East analyst Vali Nasr tweeted, “putting Soleimani funeral next to anti-regime protests it looks like Iranians are fed up with both Trump and their own rulers and the unending tragedy of their daily lives.”

Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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