Day 6

Iran could see renewed unrest after admitting its military was responsible for downing plane, says expert

On Saturday, Iranian officials acknowledged that Iranian military forces were responsible for an unintentional missile strike that brought down a Ukrainian passenger jet. Middle East expert Nader Hashemi says that could mean renewed protests against the regime.

'I think the Islamic Republic is in for some very dark days,' says political scientist Nader Hashemi

Iranians march with a banner bearing an illustration of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in Tehran on Jan. 3 against the killing of the top commander in a U.S. strike in Baghdad. (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
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Iran's admission that their military forces were responsible for the crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed 176 people will "generate a huge angry reaction" in Iran, according to Middle East expert Nader Hashemi.

Since Wednesday, officials have rejected assertions that a missile strike from Iran was responsible for the crash.

But then on Saturday, the government announced that its military "unintentionally" shot down the plane, mistaking it for a "hostile target."

Hashemi says that since the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. military drone strike earlier this month, Iranian officials have attempted to bolster support for the regime and resisted taking responsibility for the tragedy.

"They did not want to lose control of the narrative that the problems facing Iran are all as a result of external factors — the United States, etc. — and so they were milking that propaganda narrative," he said.

Hashemi spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about Iran's response and how Iranians may react.

Here is part of that conversation.

The head of Iran's Civil Aviation Authority rejected all assertions that it was an Iranian missile that brought down Flight 752, and now the government says that's exactly what it was. Why are they admitting this now? 

I think the evidence was just so overwhelming that they couldn't get away with lying. 

I suspect that the three-day delay was a result of a deep internal debate within the senior leadership to see whether they could get away with denying what was obvious to the rest of the world. 

But finally they've come clean, and I think the positive that comes out of this is at least it'll provide some relief for the families of the victims rather than dragging this out for months and years until the final report was issued. 

And what about their explanation that this was a mistake? Do you think that Iranians will accept that? Are they going to buy this explanation? 

No. This is going to generate a huge angry reaction and criticism toward the senior leadership of the Islamic Republic. 

I'm seeing things already on social media that sort of point out the following contradiction in Iran's policy: when Iran was shooting missiles at American air bases in Iraq. 

They took great concern not to hurt American soldiers [but] when it came to Iranian civilians, no such precautions were taken. So this is going to generate, I think, a lot of angry criticism, demands for accountability. And I think the Islamic Republic is in for some very dark days. 

Earlier today, Ukrainian International Airlines blamed Iran for not closing airspace.... Should Iran have closed their airspace, and will that be an issue? Are you seeing people talking about that on social media? 

Absolutely. I mean, even before the announcement last night that Iran accepted responsibility, one of the obvious questions that people were asking is, why in the middle of military hostilities was an international airport open? 

That suggests a high level of irresponsibility by the airport authorities to allow civilian aircraft to fly in the middle of military hostilities. And so the blame can only be directed at the relevant authorities in Iran who are in control of that airport. 

If Iran was firing missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq that night, why was Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 able to take off? CBC News’s Susan Ormiston looks for answers. 2:08

In the days after Qassem Soleimani was killed, Iran was able to rally people around his death and there seemed to be enormous unity, at least briefly. Has the regime lost that opportunity now? 

I think so. I think this is a disaster for the Islamic Republic, and that's why I think they delayed accepting responsibility. 

They did not want to lose control of the narrative that the problems facing Iran are all as a result of external factors, the United States, etc. And so they were milking that propaganda narrative. 

Now, the focus is very much back on the failures and the incompetence of the Islamic Republic itself. This is going to generate a huge internal backlash. And it's going to increase the crisis of legitimacy that the Islamic Republic is facing these days. 

Do you foresee a return to the extraordinary civil unrest that we saw in Iran in November? Do you think that that could happen again now? 

I think that's inevitable because I think the underlying driving factors that led to protests in November, protests about a year and a half before that, those social conditions are still there — deep economic despair, growing political repression, a lack of accountability, a strong desire for political change and then [a] series of disasters such as this airline disaster just heightened the level of, I think, anxiety and criticism. 

People rallied around this general [Soleimani] who was falsely portrayed as a national war hero. His criminal record in Syria was completely not part of the story. Those days are all gone. 

Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 crashed outside of Tehran on Wednesday. Iran admitted Saturday that an 'unintentional' missile strike brought down the aircraft. (Social media video via Reuters)

And just the immediate effect of Iran accepting responsibility for it, for shooting down [Flight] 752, does that admission change the wider dynamic of the immediate conflict that's happening now? Do you expect any kind of reprisals or any actions as a result of this admission? 

No, I don't think so, because the United States and Iran are still on a collision course. I think they've stepped back from the brink because it's pretty clear none of them wanted to escalate. 

But I think the fundamental drivers of the U.S.-Iran confrontation — which really could be traced back to Donald Trump's disastrous decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord and to put these punitive sanctions on Iran, hoping to bring it to its knees — I think those policies are still in place. 

There's very little chance of, sort of, diplomacy that can push us in a different direction. So I think that the events that precipitated this recent crisis are still very much there and they could be triggered again in the next 10 months before the next U.S. presidential election, which is the only, I think, bright spot I see on the horizon. 

Perhaps that can be a diplomatic breakthrough if there's a new president in the White House. 

There are reports that the crash site has already been cleared or partially cleared. Do you believe that we should expect that there will be a full investigation? 

Look, Iran is not known for transparency and political accountability. So I'm very concerned that with Iran leading the investigation, [we won't] have a full exposure of exactly what happened. 

The fact that they've admitted culpability and responsibility does provide some cause for optimism. Now, there's no secrets to keep. So I think that provides some cause for optimism. 

The more there can be international participation in the investigation helps with the question of transparency and accountability. Fundamentally, what's needed is to push the Iranian government to have a U.N. led independent fact finding mission to get to the bottom of the matter. 


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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