Iranians’ anger at shooting down of plane mirrors wider frustrations

Protests in Iran over targeting of Ukraine aircraft go to the heart of rifts in its society

Iranians have been horrified and infuriated by the shooting down of a Ukrainian civilian airliner in their country. They blame the authorities for failing to halt commercial air traffic at Tehran's international airport in the hours after Iranian ballistic missiles struck bases in Iraq hosting US troops.

Iranians do not understand why their military did not identify the aircraft as a passenger jet, nor why they failed to promptly assume blame for shooting it down. Criticism deepened after a senior military commander declared that he told the government the day of the incident that the aircraft had been brought down by mistake.

The authorities’ delay in admitting responsibility for the disaster prompted spontaneous demonstrations.

Mainly middle-class protesters have gathered at university campuses in Tehran, Isfahan and other cities. Some chanted that the victims were "the best of the best" because they were educated and professionals in the countries where they lived. This is not true in Iran, where graduates often drive taxis because there are no jobs for them.

Riot police have attempted to contain demonstrations with tear gas, rubber bullets and shooting into the air to avoid casualties. Protesters number in the thousands, rather than the millions who flocked into the streets to mourn the US assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani on January 3rd.

Many mourners, including pro-government conservatives, have also taken part in the protests over the shooting down of the plane. Conservatives feel ashamed of the incident and the attempted cover-up. Meanwhile, youths yearning for freedom call for the overthrow of the cleric-dominated regime, the ousting of supreme leader Ali Khamenei, and an end to political and social constraints. Women and girls demand an end to headscarves and concealing clothing.

Mismanagement and corruption

Like hundreds of thousands of working-class and rural Iranians who staged a countrywide uprising last November against a fuel price hike, they protest against mismanagement, corruption, poor services and high unemployment. For some, mourning Suleimani was also an occasion to mount an indirect protest against the regime, as he was seen as a successful, honest, clean figure while clerics and politicians are reviled.

All Iranians are weary of punitive US sanctions, regional tensions, and international isolation. Many are critical of Iranian involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, which they believe is a heavy burden on their fragile economy.

They feel betrayed by the failure of European, Russian and Chinese signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal to counter the US “maximum pressure campaign”, which has imposed economic hardship on the majority of Iranians.

Iranians argue they had continued to adhere for a year to the terms of the deal to limit their country’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, despite the US withdrawal from the accord and reimposition of sanctions. In June Iran began to suspend one provision after the other, insisting that these steps were reversible.

Consequently, Iranians see as a fresh blow Tuesday's decision by Britain, France and Germany to trigger the "dispute mechanism" in reply to Iran's actions.

In response to recent reverses, a protester told Middle East Eye: “It’s like God has turned his back on us. I don’t know why no positive change or thing occurs in Iran. We are frustrated by all the bad news we are hearing.”