Iran’s supreme leader and elite guards draw public ire after air disaster

Mehdi Karroubi, an opposition activist under house arrest, lashed out at Khamenei, saying that, as commander-in-chief, he was “directly responsible.”
Monday 13/01/2020
In this photograph taken Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, protesters hold flowers as tear gas fired by police rises at a demonstration in front of Amir Kabir University in Tehran, Iran, to remember victims of a Ukrainian flight downed by an Iranian missile. (AP)
In this photograph taken Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, protesters hold flowers as tear gas fired by police rises at a demonstration in front of Amir Kabir University in Tehran, Iran, to remember victims of a Ukrainian flight downed by an Iranian missile. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have come under unprecedented public pressure after the regime was forced to admit that it shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people.

Demonstrators across Iran, furious over the downing of the jet and days of denial by the government, vented their anger against Khamenei, who is Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander-in-chief. “Death to the dictator,” footage circulating on social media showed protesters shouting, directing their fury at Khamenei and the country’s system of clerical rule.

Mehdi Karroubi, an opposition activist under house arrest, lashed out at Khamenei, saying that, as commander-in-chief, he was “directly responsible.”

“If you were aware and you let military and security authorities deceive people, then there is no doubt you lack the attributes of constitutional leadership,” he said in a statement. Criticism of the Iranian supreme leader is punishable by up to two years in prison.

Demonstrators also criticised the IRGC for being inept. “IRGC have sone shame, leave the country alone,” protesters at Amirkabir University in Tehran chanted, as stated in a tweet by the Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi.

Protests continued January 13 for a third day. Video showed students chanting “Clerics get lost!” outside universities in Isfahan and Tehran. Riot police were filmed taking up positions in Tehran.

“They killed our elites and replaced them with clerics,” demonstrators chanted in Tehran, referring to Iranian students returning to Canada who were among those killed on the Ukrainian flight.

Videos, including several shared by the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, purported to show people screaming and scattering as tear gas was fired into crowds in the major Tehran artery of Azadi Street.

Images of the earlier protests showed slogans chanted against Khamenei, with pools of blood on the streets and gunfire in the air. Authorities denied that police had opened fire. US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Don’t kill your protesters.”

The IRGC admitted, three days after the downing of the Ukrainian jet on January 8, that its forces had mistaken the passenger plane for a US missile. The Kiev-bound airliner was downed shortly after take-off from Tehran, hours after Iran launched a wave of missiles at US troops stationed at Iraqi bases in retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian general. IRGC commander Hossein Salami said that “we are more upset than anyone over the incident,” state media reported.

That kind of statement is unlikely to appease demonstrators, however.

Omid Rezaee, an Iranian journalist in Germany, said by telephone that even some people opposed to the theocratic regime had respected the IRGC because they felt the corps defended the country against foreign threats. However, the Tehran disaster had shown “that they can’t even tell a missile from a passenger plane,” Rezaee said.

The IRGC was being criticised and mocked by demonstrators, added Rezaee, who runs a news website, perspecitve-iran.com. “This is something new for Iran,” he said.

The IRGC, founded after the 1979 revolution because the new regime did not trust the armed forces of the toppled shah, is one of the most powerful institutions of the Islamic Republic. It operates in parallel to the country’s regular military, has more than 100,000 men under arms and boasts its own naval and air forces that oversee Iran’s ballistic missile programme.

A militia under IRGC control, the Basij Force, has been instrumental in countering previous protests. The corps also has economic interests that extend to about one-third of Iran’s economy, some estimates state.

The IRGC’s al-Quds Force runs Iranian policies in the Middle East and has forged strong links with pro-Iran groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Al-Quds force commander, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, considered by some to be Iran’s second most powerful man after Khamenei, was killed in an US drone strike January 3. The assassination triggered Iran’s missile attack on US troops in Iraq.

Iran’s latest showdown with the United States comes at a precarious time for authorities in Tehran and their allies across the Middle East, when sanctions imposed by Trump have caused deep harm to the Iranian economy.

Iranian authorities killed hundreds of protesters in November in what appears to have been the bloodiest crackdown on anti-government unrest since the 1979 revolution. In Iraq and Lebanon, governments that have the support of Iran-backed armed groups have faced months of hostile mass demonstrations.