The sense of solidarity Soleimani’s assassination created in Iran gives way to fury after downing of Ukrainian jetliner.
Student protests erupted in Tehran on Saturday, shortly after General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) aerospace division, publicly acknowledged that Iranian air defence forces “unintentionally” shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752.
The Boeing 737-800 passenger plane, bound for Kyiv, crashed minutes after take-off from the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran on January 8, killing all 176 people, mostly Iranian nationals, on board.
The crash happened hours after Iran launched more than a dozen missile strikes on two Iraqi bases hosting United States troops in retaliation for Washington’s killing of the most prominent Iranian military general, Qassem Soleimani, on January 3.
Soleimani’s assassination by an adversarial foreign power temporarily created a sense of solidarity across Iran, but that unity soon gave way to aggravated public resentment and fury at the incompetence and mendacity of a ruling system that falsely insisted on “technical flaws”, persistently prevaricated over the truth behind the Ukrainian plane crash, and kept it hidden from the people for three days.
“Many wonder if Tehran would have still come clean about the real cause of the plane crash had it not been for the pressure brought to bear on Iranian authorities by foreign governments such as Ukraine and Canada who lost citizens in the tragedy,” said Mitra Jafari, a student activist leader at Allameh Tabatabayi University in Tehran.
Iran, however, has denied allegations of a cover-up.
On Sunday, Major General Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the IRGC, said at a closed meeting in the Iranian parliament or Majlis that the defence establishment could keep hiding the truth if it wanted.
“We, ourselves, were the source of this hypothesis that our missile brought down the airliner,” Salami said. “If we had not broached it, nobody could notice [the real cause].”
The parliament, however, is unlikely to hold Iran‘s top security echelons, not least inside the IRGC, to account, even though rumours of high-profile resignations have been circulating in the Persian-speaking media, so much so that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) had to dismiss claims its secretary, Ali Shamkhani, had resigned.
“The parliament is still divided along factional and partisan lines: ‘principlist’ or hardline parliamentarians are generally commending the IRGC and its efforts to protect Iran’s national security while ‘reformists’ or moderates are expressing dissatisfaction with its performance and have been urging resignations of its top commanders,” said Milad Alavi, the Iranian daily Etemad’s parliamentary correspondent.
“The Majlis is far off from the street, with some MPs even raising questions whether it would make a difference to have or not to have a parliament in the country.”
Perhaps this partly explains why protesters, who took to the streets in other cities as well, have directed their ire at the entirety of the Islamic republic, which they increasingly believe has dismally failed them.
“[Whether] reformist [or] principlist, the game is over” was one of the slogans demonstrators shouted, echoing doubts about the viability and legitimacy of the ruling system, divided as it has conventionally been into two broad political camps, hardline and moderate.
In a damning statement, the Association of Tehran Journalists lamented: “We are holding a funeral for the public trust [in the political establishment and the status quo].”
Other popular slogans were more direct, specifically intended to hammer home the point that the Iranian leadership is facing a worsening crisis of functionality and legitimacy: “Our stigma, our stigma; our dumb leader”, “Incompetent leader; resignation, resignation”, “Commander-in-Chief of all forces; resignation, resignation”, “Don’t call me a ‘seditionist’; you oppressor are the sedition,” “Referendum, referendum; that’s how to rescue people”, and “Death to the principle of Guardianship of the Jurisprudent”.
“Velayat-e Motlaghe-ye Faqih” – or Absolute Guardianship of the Jurisprudent – is a doctrinal principle that constitutes the ideological foundation of the Islamic republic and elevates the supreme Leader to the status of God’s representative on Earth in the absence of Imam Mahdi, the 12th Shia Imam who is believed to be in hiding and expected to reappear and save the world.
Mehdi Karroubi, a Green Movement opposition leader under house arrest since February 2011, declared in a public statement that Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei is not qualified for leadership.
“If you were aware [of the plane crash disaster] and yet allowed military, security and propaganda officials to deceive people … undoubtedly, you lack any of the required qualifications for leadership according to the constitution,” Karroubi wrote.
“And if you were not aware”, he continued, “please tell us what kind of ‘Commander-in-Chief of all forces’ you are, whom they [military officials] play around”.