As anger spills onto the streets of Iran after the regime admitted it was behind the shooting down of a Ukrainian plane, it is clear that Tehran’s ruling elite is facing a crisis of legitimacy among its people.
Ordinary Iranians have risked their lives over the past couple of days to vent their frustration with the government following its admission that the country's military had mistakenly shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 after it took off from Tehran last week, killing all 176 people on board. Footage posted online appears to show live ammunition being fired at protesters in Tehran, although that claim has been denied by Hossein Rahimi, the city's police chief.
The fatal crash has earned international condemnation, in large part due to the scale and avoidable nature of the tragedy. And even more problematic was the government's initial denial that it was behind the downing of the plane. However, it is domestic criticism of the intensity seen this week that amounts to a serious challenge to Tehran.
These protests signal strong sentiments in Iranian public opinion, for which the regime has only itself to blame, despite its weak insistence that the accident was a direct result of the “corruptive presence” of the US in the region, rather than one that was caused by its own trigger-happy incompetence.
Only days ago, millions rallied around the country’s leadership following the death of one of their own when a US drone strike killed Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad. Yet the IRGC’s belated admission that it had shot down the plane – after initially issuing a denial – has fractured that national unity. “They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here,” one of the protesters chanted this week.
However, what Tehran needs to understand is that the anger on the streets is the result of the people’s deep-rooted disillusionment with the regime’s expansionist ideology that has for four decades consumed much of the country’s wealth, instead of being utilised to bring progress and prosperity within its own borders.
For years, the regime has left the pleas for change from citizens unheeded. Many of those people spilled onto the streets in 2019 to protest a 50 per cent hike in petrol prices. Those protests – even as fuel in Iran was among the cheapest in the world at Dh1.30 a litre – said much about the people’s desperation. And yet the regime came down heavily on the demonstrators, reportedly killing more than 1,500 of them in one of the most brutal crackdown in years.
Amid the din surrounding geopolitical tension in the region, the regime will once again be tempted to drown out the voices of protest within the country. But at a time when it is facing unprecedented pressure abroad, it would do well to listen to its people and take a hard look at its own policies. Others have called for de-escalation and dialogue amid those simmering US-Iran tensions. Tehran should adopt the same prescription at home and listen to the anguish of its people.