Regime insiders in Iran were shaken and appalled by the killing of leader of the Al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qassem Suleimani by the US in Iraq on 3 January.
But with masses of people joining his funeral procession and overpowering anger from ordinary Iranians towards Washington, senior officials in Iran felt that the only thing that could soften the blow of Suleimani’s killing would be the solidarity shown in the Iranian streets during the three days of mourning.
As one Iranian diplomat put it to Al-Ahram Weekly, “Trump’s strike against Suleimani has achieved the impossible: Uniting the Iranian people and the different factions inside the regime.”
Yet, within a few hours and only days after the official mourning was over, events accelerated in a way that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as far as the Iranian regime was concerned.
In response to Suleimani’s killing, Iran fired a volley of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military airbases hosting US and Coalition troops. The attacks seemed to have been calibrated to minimise any casualties, thereby possibly averting a broader conflict as Iran was not sure how Washington would react. US President Donald Trump had earlier said that any Iranian response might provoke “disproportionate” US strikes.
Hours later, an Iranian missile shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane minutes after it had taken off from the Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard, most of them Iranians and Iranian-Canadians.
Iranian officials claimed that the plane had suffered from a technical failure that had led to the tragic accident. But after growing international pressure, Iran was forced to admit that Iranian air defences had shot down the plane as they thought it was an American cruise missile.
This was a tragic mistake indeed. But what made it an unforgivable crime was the cover up attempts and lies.
“If the officials in Iran had admitted from the start that a grave error had been committed by the air defence of the Revolutionary Guards, apologised, opened an immediate investigation, and promised compensation to the victims, the popular reaction would have been more understanding,” Farzaneh, an Iranian academic in Tehran, told the Weekly.
“Lying for days to the people and trying to obscure what had happened were what sparked the outrage that we see in the streets in Iran. The regime treats us like idiots, but not many Iranians thought that the plane had really crashed due to a technical fault,” she added.
Popular anger has swelled over the last few days over the accidental shooting down of the plane and the cover-up attempts by officials, as online videos have appeared to show the security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas at the protesters in the streets.
Many Iranians have expressed their shock and outrage over the plane crash that killed many Iranians, among them scores of young people. They have also criticised the misleading statements from top officials, who only admitted responsibility three days later in the face of mounting evidence.
“What sparked the outrage was the fact that the authorities made a great effort to ensure that no American or Western soldiers would be killed in the response to the assassination of Suleimani, but at the same time they acted with haste and recklessness in shooting down a civilian plane,” Farzaneh said.
For a growing number of critics from ordinary citizens to Iranian public figures, the events have revealed a government that is incapable of following through on its incendiary rhetoric and willing to mislead its own people about a tragedy in order to avoid embarrassment.
Such sentiments first boiled over late on Saturday, shortly after the Revolutionary Guard admitted shooting the plane down by mistake. A candlelight vigil then rapidly turned into an anti-government demonstration.
Videos sent to the New York-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran and later verified by the Associated Press showed a crowd of demonstrators near Azadi Square in Tehran fleeing as a tear gas canister landed among them.
Another video showed a woman being carried away in the aftermath of the violence, a trail of blood visible on the ground. Those around her were crying out that she had been shot in the leg.
Tehran Police Chief Hussein Rahimi denied that his officers had opened fire. But the semi-official Fars News Agency reported that police had “shot tear gas in some areas”.
Fars, close to the Revolutionary Guard, also carried videos purportedly shot on Sunday night showing demonstrators chanting that “we are the children of war. Fight with us, and we will fight back.”
Another Fars video showed demonstrators in Tehran tearing down a poster of Suleimani.
Trump has encouraged the demonstrators, even tweeting messages of support in Farsi and warning the Iranian government not to fire on them.
In addition to the street protests, Iran’s government has also faced harsh criticisms from prominent artists, athletes and journalists. Famed Iranian film director Masoud Kimiai withdrew from an upcoming international film festival, and two state TV hosts resigned in protest over the false reporting about what had happened to the plane.
Taraneh Alidoosti, one of Iran’s most famous actresses, posted a picture of a black square on Instagram with the caption “we are not citizens. We are hostages. Millions of hostages.”
Saeed Maroof, the captain of Iran’s national volleyball team, also wrote on Instagram that “I wish I could be hopeful that this was the last scene of the show of deceit and lack of wisdom of these incompetents, but I still know it is not.”
He said that despite Iran’s national team qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, “there is no energy left in our sad and desperate souls to celebrate.”
The events also lost Iran credibility from the European nations. Already suffering under crippling US sanctions, Tehran is at a crossroads since Britain, France and Germany have now triggered the dispute resolution mechanism in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, a step that could result in the collapse of the agreement and the return of European sanctions on Tehran.
Officials described the move as one taken more in sorrow than anger and said it had been prompted in part by fears that Iran could now be less than a year away from possessing the capacity to develop a nuclear bomb.
The leaders of the three nations said in a statement that they had been “left with no choice, given Iran’s actions, but to register our concerns that Iran is not meeting its commitments.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that “our goal is clear: we want to preserve the accord and come to a diplomatic solution within the agreement. We will tackle this together with all the partners in the agreement. We call on Iran to participate constructively in the negotiation process that is now beginning.”
Trump has been pressing Europe to leave the nuclear deal since he unilaterally withdrew in May 2018. In one of the strongest calls yet from Europe for a new agreement to replace the 2015 deal, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the way forward was to agree what he called a “Trump deal”.
“If we’re going to get rid of it, let’s replace it, and let’s replace it with the Trump deal… President Trump is a great deal-maker, by his own account. Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and get the Trump deal instead.”
The Germans and the French also support renegotiation of the nuclear deal, meaning that the circles are narrowing around Iran.
The conflict between America and Iran was never going to turn into a full military confrontation even with the killing of the second-most influential military figure in Iran.
Tehran was always probably going to respond in phases, with the ultimate goal being to end the US military presence in Iraq and the Middle East. The killing of Suleimani handed Iran the initiative to start reducing the American influence in the region. But after a series of catastrophic mistakes, Iran has now handed the initiative back to America.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly: Defeat from the jaws of victory