Anger at the regime’s misinformation lit a spark. “Many Iranians are furious, both with the apparent attempt to hide the truth and the earlier decision by Iranian authorities not to stop civilian flights when the heightened risk of war with the U.S. had put the country’s air defense system on high alert,” wrote Najmeh Bozorgmehr of the Financial Times.
Vigils and protests held on a number of Iranian university campuses saw chants against the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. By Sunday night, there were reports of security forces once more clashing with protesters in Tehran. The national outpouring of grief that followed the United States’ targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani earlier this month has hardly put a lid on the boiling tensions and frustrations within Iran, where mass protests over a faltering economy flared in November only to be quashed by a brutal crackdown that claimed hundreds of lives.
The admission of culpability over the passenger jet has intensified the pressures facing Iran’s theocratic regime. Sixty-three Canadian nationals were aboard the doomed flight. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “outraged and furious” and led calls for accountability and possible compensation. Faced with asphyxiating U.S. sanctions, the Iranian regime has looked to other Western governments for support, painting itself as a victim of Trumpian bullying. But international sympathy is running out.
“The Iranian government is at a cross-roads moment,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement. “It can continue its march towards pariah status with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to deescalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif limply described the accident as the consequence of “human error” at a “time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism.” Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace division, was a bit less evasive when he said his unit accepted responsibility for the crash. “I wish I was dead,” Hajizadeh said on state television.
According to my colleagues, Ukrainian officials were privately convinced the jet was felled by a missile but walked a delicate diplomatic tightrope to avoid political friction with Iran. Trudeau, too, was cautious in the aftermath of the crash. “He resisted the temptation to lash out,” Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former adviser in Trudeau’s government, told Reuters. “That might have provided space for the Iranian government to face the reality that it had shot down an airliner.”
There’s a lot more that Iranian leadership may be struggling to face. “The regime suffers from a deep crisis of legitimacy,” Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told Canada’s CBC. “So this is going to add to the regime’s illegitimacy because the institutional arrangements, the structure of power, prevent any open and honest accountable system that can get to the bottom of this crisis and this killing.”
U.S. officials understand this tension. Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted emphatic support for Iranian protesters and warnings to the regime not to shoot those on the streets. He even posted a message in Farsi, declaring that the “world is watching.”
But such rhetoric is curious given Trump’s record on other fronts. It is his administration that chose to reimpose crippling economic sanctions on Iran, in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iranian citizens have suffered greatly as a result. Trump and U.S. officials argue that the burden of guilt rests with the regime, but the sanctions have provided an easy excuse for Iran’s leadership to point to “imperialist” perfidy. On Friday, the Trump administration slapped additional sanctions on Iran, a broad-based measure that targeted its metals, mining, construction, textiles and other industrial sectors.
Administration officials seem to revel in the effects of this pressure campaign, even though it has yet to curtail any of Iran’s supposed malign activities abroad.
And while Trump celebrated the “great Iranian people” on social media, he maintains a controversial ban on Iranian travel to the United States, scapegoating an entire nation (along with six others) and causing untold heartbreak for families and communities linked across borders. According to reports last week, Trump is considering “dramatically expanding” the list of countries subjected to these travel bans in coming weeks as part of an election-year gambit. Though such edicts impose a stigma and inflict misery upon Iranians and other nationals barred from visiting the United States, they seem to appeal to a nationalist base that delights in Trump’s apparent toughness.
“Ironically, Donald Trump’s policy, I would argue, is actually bolstering the Islamic Republic and allowing its leaders to externalize its problems,” said Hashemi. He added that Iranians “feel caught between a rock and a hard place — between an authoritarian regime on the one hand that’s deeply repressive, and then a Donald Trump on the outside that’s sanctioning Iran to death.”