Iranian leaders have been under increasing pressure following the downing of Ukrainian Airlines flight 752. The flight departed shortly after 6:00 AM from Tehran International Airport on 8 January and was struck by Iranian missiles two minutes after departure, killing all 176 of its passengers. Many of the victims were nationals of other countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom. This came just hours after Iranian missiles fell on American bases in Iraq as retaliation for the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, ratcheting up tensions in the Persian Gulf.
The government’s initial reaction was to deny responsibility and claim human error as the cause for the accident before the Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran admitted responsibility for mistakenly targeting the airliner. The downing sparked widespread condemnation, even from pro-regime figures who called for solidarity in the wake of the assassination. Kian Abdollahi, Editor in Chief of the Tasnim News Agency, stated, “The catastrophic way the information was spread to people is just as bad as the catastrophe itself. The officials who reported wrongly to the media are responsible. They make us all ashamed.” The international community also heaped on criticism. Justin Trudeau demanded that Iran must take “full responsibility” but also blamed the United States in an interview with Global Television, “I think if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families.”
Trudeau is not far from the truth. The United States is not entirely blameless in the Persian Gulf crisis. Since its withdrawal from the Iranian Nuclear Deal in 2018, the two countries have adopted an antagonistic “tit for tat”-style policy, resulting in the storming of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the killing of a U.S. contractor in Iraq, the targeted assassination of a public figure on foreign soil, retaliatory military strikes, and now as a sad consequence, the deaths of 176 people who became unwitting victims of a geopolitical struggle beyond their control. However, the missile that shot down Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 was Iranian and not American. Iran still bears the primary responsibility for the act, as much as the United States might have antagonized them. What is needed now is not a scapegoat but a willingness on part of the Iranian government to take a step back. In turn the United States must also be willing to move towards de-escalation. If not, more casualties are likely to ensue.
The victims of the Ukrainian Airlines disaster are not the first either. Widespread protests against Ayatollah Khomeini erupted in November and quickly became violent: police suppressed them with lethal force. 1,500 people were killed, per figures from Iranian interior ministry officials speaking to Reuters. However, this only served to fuel larger and more violent protests. The killing of Soleimani appeared to bring about a temporary sense of national unity but this sensation crumbled away in the wake of the plane’s downing. Protests are ongoing and still face stiff resistance from the regime even as Iranian citizens attempt to gather to mourn the victims of both the flight and police crackdowns.
Palpable change could be around the corner for Iranian society, though whether or not that change will result in a more transparent government, more democratic rights, or a change in leadership remains to be seen. The Ayatollah has remained in his position for decades and has kept a tight grip on power even in the face of intense opposition; political dissent is not tolerated in any form. The right of assembly as well as freedom of expression is severely restricted in Iran and the country has one of the highest numbers of journalists in prison according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Iran is, at present, one of the most repressive regimes in the world. The tremendous loss of life in the Ukrainian Airlines disaster may have brought about the attention of the world but it belies greater internal problems within the country, problems that have not been met with peaceful dialogue or due process but rather extreme violence and media blackouts. However this response is unlikely to quell any of the issues that plague Iranian society. Eventually, the leaders of Iran will have to provide some form of redress or face a growing opposition from movements both within and without.
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