The downing of a plane showed citizens what’s wrong with the Iranian government, but the regime has no plans to change, writes Suzanne Maloney. This article originally appeared in the Atlantic.
When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led prayers at Tehran’s Grand Mosque for the first time in eight years on Friday, Iran’s supreme leader described the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 by his military as a “bitter accident”—one that enemies abroad were exploiting as an excuse to discredit the Islamic Republic. But the real threat to the regime, which has spent decades trying to cement its rule, is the discontent of the Iranian public. Both the plane crash on January 8 and the cover-up that followed struck at the heart of the grievances that shape Iranians’ anger toward and alienation from their government. And if the demise of Flight 752 revealed the government’s malign disregard for its own citizens, its relentless suppression of the subsequent protests has only underscored its imperviousness to any meaningful accountability.
After decades of international sanctions that hamper Iran’s ability to buy new aircraft and spare parts, the country’s plane fleet is notoriously old and prone to catastrophe—so much so that the early reports citing engine problems sounded plausible to people grimly inured to aviation risks. But the early explanations for the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 quickly crumbled under the weight of obvious falsehoods. In reality, Flight 752 had been downed by Iran’s own air defenses. In the course of retaliating against the United States for the drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, Iranian military commanders apparently mistook the jetliner for an incoming American cruise missile. But this tragedy never would have occurred had Tehran taken the obvious precaution of halting civilian air traffic as it began missile strikes against U.S. forces in Iraq. Iranian leaders declined to take this step. Citing unnamed sources, the London-based Persian-language news channel Iran International, which is frequently critical of the Iranian government, reported that officials believed the presence of civilian aircraft in the skies would deter any possible U.S. counterattacks.
Vigils for the 176 victims of the crash—most of whom were Iranian citizens or dual nationals—almost immediately morphed into defiant anti-regime protests in cities across the country. Only days before, millions had marched through the streets to commemorate Soleimani, the powerful Iranian commander whose killing had precipitated the latest escalation of U.S.-Iranian tensions. Suddenly, instead of government-orchestrated marches echoing with the refrain “Death to America,” young Iranians rushed to the streets to castigate their own leadership as liars and heap scorn on the security forces. The depth of public fury surprised many outside observers.
Soleimani’s killing on January 3, and the cycle of escalation that it precipitated, have tended to overshadow the price that ordinary Iranians have already paid in this latest round of Tehran’s long-running conflict with Washington—a price far greater than that paid by their ostensible enemies. A stampede amid a funeral procession for Soleimani in the Iranian city of Kerman killed more than 50 Iranians and wounded several hundred. Those losses, and the deaths of the Flight 752 passengers, come only two months after government security forces killed perhaps as many as 1,500 Iranians during unrest that erupted in November. All of these events speak to a long history of suffering that has been brought upon Iranians as much by their own leaders as by their adversaries.
In the successive waves of unrest that have shaken Iran over the past few years, protesters have agitated for a government that prioritizes the basic needs of the citizens ahead of the rulers’ ideological imperatives. Some have concluded that Iran’s pursuit of regional power—including its support of proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah—has come at the expense of the country’s development. “Not Gaza, not Lebanon,” declares one increasingly common slogan. “I sacrifice myself for Iran.”
That critique echoes and extends a debate within the political establishment itself. The various factions within the ruling system have traded accusations over who is to blame for a series of natural and man-made calamities, including the January 2017 fire that destroyed a historic building in Tehran and killed more than a dozen firefighters, devastation from a 2017 earthquake, and more recently massive flooding in provinces across Iran. The country is experiencing what journalist Christian Oliver recently described as “a crisis of competence”—a growing sense among the population that a government whose legitimacy had become increasingly associated with quality of life rather than revolutionary fervor is no longer capable of delivering the goods for its people. On the streets, the factional blame game has proven irrelevant; the protests are denouncing the system as a whole.
Underlying these passions is a deeply-rooted impetus for accountability that has informed the century-plus long struggle for representative government within Iran from the start. Cover-ups are part of the Islamic Republic’s DNA, and those officials who have gone public about the regime’s persistent use of violence against its own population or perversion of its own institutions have typically been detained and silenced.
The rapid admission of official responsibility for the downing of Flight 752 is a rare exception. As the Iranian American human-rights lawyer Gissou Nia has explained, many Iranians are convinced that the tragedy would have been played very differently had the plane crash been purely a domestic affair. By contrast, a crash involving passengers of diverse nationalities, on an American-branded plane flown by a Ukrainian airline to a Canadian destination, involved the global community in the incident and forced Iran’s military to own up to its grievous error.
Even still, Tehran does not yet seem inclined to hold its own commanders accountable. To date, the only apparent judicial actions related to the missile strike on the Ukrainian plane have been directed at those who helped to make the truth known to the world. Iran has reportedly arrested the person who leaked the video that helped open-source investigative journalists confirm the suspicions voiced initially by Canadian and American officials about the crash.
Ultimately, there is little reason to believe that the public admission of fault by the Iranian military in the downing of the plane will lead to any kind of meaningful accountability from the ruling system itself. Iran’s security establishment is already dealing with the shock of losing one of its most influential figures in Soleimani. Moreover, it’s hardly obvious that responsibility for wrongfully shooting down Flight 752 should end with the military. After all, the Iranian media made a point to tout the role Khamenei himself played in overseeing the missile attack from a military operations center. His government’s official indifference toward the lives and well-being of Iranians contrasts starkly with the apparent precision and deliberation demonstrated by the Iranian military in avoiding American fatalities in Iraq and elsewhere.
Real accountability for Flight 752 may have to come from the demonstrators whom Khamenei’s government is trying hard to banish. By the fifth day, their numbers had been thinned by a muscular police presence as well as the tear gas and episodic gunfire that has been deployed over the past few days. But whatever becomes of this latest unrest, it will not be the end of the challenges facing the Iranian leadership from its own citizenry.
Grief and anger over the plane downing appear to have engaged a different constituency than those who rallied in November and in previous rounds of unrest over concerns about economic hardship and inequality. Then, the protesters were primarily poor young men, enraged and desperate about their lack of opportunities and the corruption that insulates the regime and its oligarchs from any consequences.
This time, the unrest has been centered around Iranian universities, and the voices denouncing the Islamic Republic have been those of students and the middle class. For them, the cruel ending to the hopes of highly educated Iranians who were building lives overseas has resonated powerfully. What this means is that the Islamic Republic and its 80-year-old supreme leader must now contend with multiple sources of fierce public dissatisfaction at a time when external pressure is severe and leadership transitions—whether through upcoming elections or inevitable succession at the top—loom large. Revolutionary Iran has navigated perilous waters repeatedly over the past four decades, but the currents just became more unpredictable than ever.