Weakened by showdown with US, Iran faces outcry over plane downing
ISTANBUL - After a roller-coaster week that saw the assassination of a top Iranian general by the United States, an Iranian calculated retaliation against US troops in Iraq, attempts at de-escalation and the death of 176 people in a plane crash caused by an Iranian missile, the regime in Tehran finds itself embattled and weakened both internationally and at home.
It was embroiled in a major new domestic and international crisis after it had to admit January 11 that it had downed a Ukrainian passenger jet earlier in the week.
The killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s al-Quds Force, January 3 in Baghdad, was a major blow to the Iranian regime but its leaders sought to capitalise on the event, which triggered an outpouring of grief that saw thousands of Iranians attend funeral ceremonies.
While Iran was as clearly careful to avoid a full-blown confrontation with the United States, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leaders did not seem to accept the Erbil missile strike as the extent of Iranian revenge. Senior IRGC commander Abdollah Araghi, speaking after US President Donald Trump said Iran appeared to be “standing down,” proclaimed Iran would take “harsher revenge soon.”
By the end of the week, the regime had wasted all political and psychological capital it might have amassed at home by presenting itself as the victim of an unprompted US attack. Following initial denials, the government was forced to admit responsibility for the catastrophic January 8 crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet, in which 57 Canadians were among the 176 people killed.
“Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that, regrettably, missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people,” Iranian President Hassan Rohani posted on Twitter January 11.
It was unclear whether the missile was fired by the regular army or the IRGC but the official IRNA news agency said the IRGC would offer an apology and an explanation for the crash.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the country’s armed forces to address “shortcomings” and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appeared to hold Washington partly responsible, citing “US adventurism.”
Experts said mounting international scrutiny would have made it all but impossible to hide signs of a missile strike in an investigation and Iran may have felt a swift policy reversal to admit responsibility was better than battling rising criticism abroad, as well as facing growing anger and grief over the crash at home because most victims were Iranian.
After weeks of protests over living conditions, Iranians are unlikely to quietly accept their government’s responsibility in the catastrophe. Some took to social media to vent their anger over the regime’s incompetence and failed efforts to cover up the affair.
“I know it’s not the first time ‘human error’ leads to a catastrophe but ‘intentionally’ trying to conceal the reality for three days is a sign of the total moral collapse of #Iran’s government,” Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, wrote on Twitter.