The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Iran, it’s possible to be angry at both the government and America

An anti-government demonstration at the Tehran University campus in Tehran on Jan. 14, 2020. Protesters were angry at the delayed announcement that Iran unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian plane last week. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

ISTANBUL — For a brief moment this month, Iran's rulers appeared buoyed by the wave of nationalist sentiment that swept the country after the U.S. killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Now that support has been clouded by anger, as public outrage grows over Tehran’s accidental shooting down of a civilian airliner last week.

After days of denial, Iran’s armed forces said Saturday that the plane — Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 — was shot down when they mistook it for a hostile aircraft. Since then, sporadic protests criticizing the government have flared in Tehran and other cities.

On Tuesday, student protesters at the University of Tehran chanted anti-government slogans as officials scrambled to find a way to quell the growing unrest. Iran’s judiciary spokesman announced the arrest of “some individuals” in connection with the plane’s downing but offered no detail on who had been detained.

The U.S. military said on Jan. 16 that 11 Americans had been injured during the Iranian missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Emilienne Malfatto/For The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, appeared to urge Iran’s military brass to “explain to the public” why it took days to reveal that the plane had been shot down. “It is very important for our people that whoever, at any level, was to blame should be introduced and whoever is to be punished, should be punished,” Rouhani said.

Iran’s state media said that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would take the exceptional step of leading Friday prayers in Tehran this week for the first time in eight years.

The efforts by senior officials to calm the public are in stark contrast to the defiant tones struck by Tehran amid an outpouring of grief this month for Soleimani at his funeral procession, which was attended by hundreds of thousands of Iranians. The juxtaposition of these public displays of passion, less than a week apart, highlight the tensions and fissures in the body politic of Iran, a nation of some 80 million people whose attitudes at times clash and other times converge.

Iran is often presented “as a monolith . . . a country where all of its citizens move as one,” said Reza Akbari, a researcher of Iranian politics at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Washington. “But Iranians are capable of condemning U.S. attacks against their sovereignty while protesting the gross negligence of their government,” he said.

For many Iranians, Soleimani’s killing in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad was a national affront and came amid widespread resentment over harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration after it withdrew the United States in 2018 from the landmark nuclear deal. The mourning and anger were real, even as some Iranians reported that the government had worked to bolster the crowds.

At the same time, the protests over the downed airliner, Akbari said, align with longer-term demands from the Iranian population for transparency, justice and accountability. These demonstrations, along with widespread unrest that gripped Iran in November, reflect frustration with the government over a wide range of subjects, including corruption, economic mismanagement and political repression.

“Iran is a diverse and dynamic society . . . [and] the large turnout across Iran for Soleimani’s funeral processions, as well as the angry protests against the regime for shooting down the Ukraine flight, are evidence of that diversity,” said Afshon Ostovar, an assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.” 

Over the past week, some Iranians who are traditionally supportive of the government have criticized its handling of the airliner episode, while some pro-reform citizens marched at the processions for Soleimani, who was widely credited in Iran with helping defeat the Islamic State.

“Some people who went to [Soleimani’s] funeral also protested the government over the downing of the airplane,” said Zahra, 33, a resident of Tehran. She spoke on the condition that her full name not be used so she could freely discuss political dynamics in Iran.

Zahra said the killing of Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds Force, elicited a range of strong emotions. “Some people viewed Soleimani as a terrorist and others as a savior for the country,” she said. “And some are just scared about the possibility of war.”

In a statement this week, students at Amirkabir University in Tehran, a site of recent protests, conveyed dismay at being trapped between belligerence from abroad and hardship at home.

“While the government’s economic policies and political suppression have brought the people to the end of their tether, the shadow of war has also appeared above our heads,” the statement said. “In the midst of constant threats by military powers, today what is lacking in Iran’s political climate is the people’s voice. . . . The people demand freedom and equality.”

In recent years, Iran’s economy has suffered because of escalating U.S. sanctions, and it is expected to contract by 8.7 percent this year, according to the World Bank.

In November, demonstrators staged nationwide protests over cuts to fuel subsidies. They were met with a swift and brutal crackdown by security forces, which human rights groups say killed at least 200 protesters. That unrest erupted mainly in working-class areas of Iranian cities, observers said.

The protests this week have centered on universities and appear to include members of the middle class.

“The grievances that have been driving these protests are still there,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

The resumption of anti-government protests, Ostovar said, demonstrates that people remain “fed up with the regime’s nonsense.”

“They understand that they shouldn’t be at war with the United States in the first place, and that the regime’s self-serving policies have brought the nation to this point,” he said. “The regime wanted a moment of national pride and instead got national shame.”

On Tuesday, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the armed branch that shot down the Ukrainian plane, said it had arrested the person who took a video of the surface-to-air missile striking the Boeing 737-800 over Tehran, shortly after the plane took off from Imam Khomeini International Airport on Jan. 8.

But even as some in the Revolutionary Guard sought to limit scrutiny of its catastrophic failure, other traditional allies were more critical. The editor in chief of the Tasnim News Agency, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guard, called the decision to hide the cause of the plane crash from the public an “unforgivable mistake.”

Kareem Fahim contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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