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Just a week ago, Iranians appeared united by the U.S.’s killing of a top general, with more than a million mourners crowding the streets of Tehran for his funeral procession, creating a spectacle that could be seen by satellite.
But on Monday, Iranians were back in the streets — this time to vent their rage at the Iranian government, after it sensationally admitted to having accidentally shot down a passenger plane amid tensions with the U.S. last week, killing all 176 people on board.
Iran’s sudden mea culpa Saturday, following days of denials, has triggered three consecutive days of demonstrations, with protesters calling for an end to the regime as fury over the tragedy boils over. Chants of “Death to the dictator” and "Khamenei have shame, leave the country” were heard as protesters directed their anger at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the head of the regime for three decades.
“They tell us the lie that it is America, but our enemy is right here,” shouted protesters at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University.
On Sunday, security forces appeared to fire live ammunition to disperse crowds in Tehran, according to footage circulated on Twitter. The clips, which VICE News was unable to independently verify, appeared to show gunshots ringing out, bleeding victims, and blood on the streets.
Riot police also used tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters in Tehran's Azadi Square, while protests also spread outside the capital to cities including Shiraz, Hamedan, Esfahan, and Orumiyeh, according to reports.
On Monday, Iranian officials denied they had fired on protesters — just months after they killed hundreds of demonstrators in a brutal response to protests that broke out in November.
Meanwhile, officials lashed out at U.S. President Donald Trump for a Farsi-language tweet in which he pledged his support for the protesters and promised to “continue to stand” by them.
Iranian government spokesperson Ali Rabiei said Monday that Trump “was shedding crocodile tears” for the protesters, pointing out how Trump had used the same medium to threaten to bomb the country’s most important cultural sites just days earlier.
A “disastrous mistake”
The protests were in part a response to Iran’s shock admission Saturday it had committed a “disastrous mistake” by downing the plane Wednesday, just hours after it had struck U.S. military bases in neighboring Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. drone killing of a top general, Qassem Soleimani.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake,” President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter, vowing to prosecute those responsible. “My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families.”
The admission represented a sudden about-face — and an effective admission to the public that the regime had been lying for days about the cause of the disaster, as officials had publicly rubbished claims from Western intelligence agencies that the plane had been shot down by an Iranian missile. The apology from Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, which accepted full responsibility, also marked a rare admission of culpability from the military.
Iran’s actions drew sharp condemnation from around the world and provoked outrage at home, where the loss of so many Iranian lives was viewed as a national tragedy. Of the 176 people on board the flight, 82 were Iranian, and many others were of Iranian descent.
Trump: “Do not kill your protesters”
The protests have shattered the image of national unity that had been presented to the world when vast crowds turned out for the funeral of Soleimani. By contrast, videos circulated Sunday of Iranians tearing down posters bearing Soleimani’s image.
Trump was quick to seize on the unrest as an opening to pressure the Iranian government, and began tweeting in Farsi to drive home his support for the protests.
“To the leaders of Iran — DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS,” he tweeted Sunday. “Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching.”
Trump’s tweet about killing protesters was likely in reference to Iranian demonstrations that broke out over gas price hikes in mid-November, and which were brutally put down by the regime. The official death toll from the protests is unknown, but is estimated to be in the hundreds, and potentially higher than 1,000.
U.K. ambassador detained
Britain was drawn into the tumult over the crash and its fallout Sunday when its ambassador to Tehran, Rob Macaire, was arrested by Iranian authorities for several hours after being accused of taking part in the protests.
Macaire tweeted following his release Sunday that he “wasn’t taking part in any demonstrations,” but had been detained after attending an event that had been advertised as a vigil for the victims of the plane crash.
“Normal to want to pay respects — some of victims were British,” he wrote, adding that he had left after five minutes, when chants broke out at the gathering. “Arresting diplomats is of course illegal, in all countries.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab slammed the arrest as “without grounds or explanation” and “a flagrant violation of international law,” and his government has summoned the Iranian ambassador to London over the incident.
"None of us mattered, we were tools"
Meanwhile, high-profile Iranians have used social media to speak out against the regime, as the rumblings of dissent continue to grow.
Iran’s only ever solo female Olympic medallist, the taekwondo athlete Kimia Alizadeh, announced Saturday that she had defected from the Islamic Republic, saying she was tired of the regime’s "hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery.”
The 21-year-old, who announced her defection on Instagram Saturday, had been celebrated in Iran for her sporting achievements in winning bronze in Rio in 2016. But she said that she was oppressed in her homeland, and that her sporting success had led to her being used as a propaganda tool for the regime.
“I am one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran who they've been playing for years," she wrote.
“I wore whatever they said. Every sentence they ordered me to say, I repeated. Whenever they saw fit, they exploited me," she added.
"I wasn't important to them. None of us mattered to them, we were tools.”
Alizadeh did not specify in her post where she was defecting to, but Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported that she had emigrated to the Netherlands and no longer intended to compete under the Iranian flag.
And on Sunday, one of Iran’s most beloved film actresses, Taraneh Alidoosti, also used Instagram to criticize the government. The 35-year-old, who starred in the Oscar-nominated “The Salesman” in 2016, told her 6 million followers: “We are not citizens. We never were. We are captives.”
Cover: Protesters chant slogans while holding up posters of Gen. Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in front of the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020. A candlelight ceremony late Saturday in Tehran turned into a protest, with hundreds of people chanting against the country's leaders — including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and police dispersing them with tear gas. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)