Is the Islamic Republic's leadership having a Chernobyl moment? The regime's handling of the fallout from the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 last week has drawn comparisons with Moscow's denials and obfuscation in the wake of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Those lies contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. It's too early to tell how the botched response to the unintentional shooting down of a jetliner will affect the Iranian regime, but it has already transformed the mood in the country.
Having initially maintained that the plane crashed due to mechanical failure, Tehran finally acknowledged on Saturday that one of its surface-to-air missiles shot it down, killing all 176 people aboard. At the time, the country's air defences were on high alert in case of US retaliation for an Iranian missile barrage, just hours earlier, on a US base in Iraq. The admission, accompanied by signs of genuine contrition and a rare public apology from the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, took some heat out of the intensifying criticism from foreign capitals. Unlike Russia, which continues to deny any responsibility for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, at least Tehran eventually accepted its culpability.
But at home the admission set off anger and recrimination. The national solidarity in the aftermath of the US assassination of Qassem Suleimani quickly evaporated. Young people returned to the streets, this time not to mourn the dead commander, as they had just last week, but to chant anti-government slogans and even to denounce supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – a capital offence. On Sunday, unrest was reported in at least a dozen cities. The authorities fired tear gas, rubber bullets and some live ammunition to disperse protesters in Tehran, according to reports.
The problem is that, by its actions, the US undermines its own strategy. The killing of Suleimani has strengthened the hand of hardliners
The crackdown shows that, despite the regime's self-criticism over the airplane disaster, its intolerance of dissent remains rigid and unchanging. Hardliners habitually suspect that American intelligence agencies are involved in fomenting protests such as those of recent days; the regime will seize on the gleeful response from Donald Trump to the weekend's unrest. It will also claim that the steep drop in living standards – one of the main grievances behind recent popular demonstrations – is a direct result of punitive US sanctions reimposed after Trump's breach of the nuclear containment deal in 2018.
The Trump administration’s contention all along has been that sanctions would apply severe internal pressure on the regime and perhaps even cause it to implode. The problem is that, by its actions, the US undermines its own strategy. The killing of Suleimani has strengthened the hand of hardliners. Instead of coaxing Tehran to the negotiating table, the US is actively undermining those most inclined to talk.