The clerical rulers of Iran face a legality crisis as protesters crowded the streets of Tehran after authorities admitted the shot down of a Ukrainian airliner.
Video clips on Twitter displayed protesters close to the Amir Kabir University gates near the ex-U.S. embassy, chanting “Death to liars,” “Death to the dictator,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Reuters couldn’t independently verify the video. It received a welter of criticism in Iran.
Protests had erupted, said Iran’s news agency.
— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) January 11, 2020
The Guards issues an expression of regret for shooting down the plane, stating “air defenses were fired in error during a high alert state.” This is because Iran was expecting retaliation from the U.S. after it retaliates for Soleimani’s killing at Iraqi bases where U.S. troops were positioned.
One hardline official said the mistake shouldn’t be characterized into a political weapon to use against the establishment and the Revolutionary Guards, which is a force that answers directly to Khamenei and is a guardian of the theocratic system of Iran.
“Let’s stop being so harsh. It was a tense time, and everyone was nervous. You cannot overlook what the Guards have contributed to protecting this country and the nation since the revolution,” the security official told Reuters.
However, Khamenei, who has always referred turnout at elections as a sign of the legitimacy of the system of clerical rule, may now find people are not so keen to show their support.
“Why should I vote for this system? I don’t trust them at all. They almost lied to us about what happened to the plane. Why should I trust them when they don’t trust people to tell the truth?” said Hesham Ghanbari, a 27 years old university student in Tehran.
The protests took place at the time when the government is already struggling to keep the economy floating under rising U.S. sanctions, imposed by Washington after the Trump administration in 2018 withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Vital oil exports of Iran have declined since then.
“This incident is a stark reminder of the gaping lack of governance,” said Sanam Vakil, Senior Research Fellow at North Africa and Middle East programme at Chatham House.
“This incident will not be forgotten nor is it easy to handle things for the population under sanctions and pressure not only from abroad but from the state, too,” said Vakil.
Increasing U.S. sanctions and the unintentional shootdown of the Ukrainian airliner are somehow tightening the situation for the Iranian regime. But it’s also a fact that they already went through and survived more severe challenges in the past, including a crippling eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Among the first on the streets during the November protests sparked by a hike in gasoline prices, were mostly the poor and lower-middle classes who have most benefited from state bounty in the past.
Learning that Iranian forces hit down a plane, whether by unintentionally or not, is a further blow for the nation, as most of the passengers were dual-national Iranians.
“It has shocked the public. The regime has carelessly killed its own people, once more,” said Ray Takeyh, expert fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It punctures the already spurious narrative that the assassination of Qasem Soleimani has gathered the Iranian people behind their authorities,” Takeyh said.
Khamenei, who has no term limit, has been in supremacy since the death of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.
Elections that will conduct on Feb. 21 will elect members of the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that will eventually be responsible for selecting a successor to 80-year-old Khamenei.