Iran on Tuesday announced that it made arrests of “some individuals” in connection with its Revolutionary Guard Corp’s downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 aboard.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said the arrests took place after extensive investigations, state media reported. Esmaili gave no further details.
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The announcement came after Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called for a special court to be set up to probe the downing of the commercial jet just after takeoff from Tehran’s international airport.
Authorities in Iran initially dismissed allegations that one of the country’s missiles had brought down the jetliner, but it were forced into an admission in the face of mounting evidence. Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corp said it shot down the Ukrainian plane by mistake as it was bracing for possible U.S. retaliation for a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. No one was hurt in that attack.
Rouhani described Iran’s shooting down of the plane as “a painful and unforgivable.” He said the responsibility “falls on more than just one person” and that those found culpable “should be punished.”
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Ukraine International Flight 752 was en route to Kyiv when it was brought down by an antiaircraft missile on Jan. 8. The airliner was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians – including many Iranians with dual citizenship – and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. There were several children among the passengers, including an infant.
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Aerospace Force of the Iran’s Revolution Guard Corps, an elite military wing, previously acknowledged that a military officer under his command shot down the plane thinking that Iran was under attack by U.S. forces. Hajizadeh said when he heard his forces downed the plane, he wished he were dead.
Tehran’s acknowledgement that it was responsible for shooting down the plane has sent protesters in Iran pouring into the streets in recent days. They are angry at the government’s initial cover-up of the incident and its perceived incompetence.
Video posted on social media and by human rights organizations has appeared to show security forces making arrests and firing live ammunition as police aggressively countered intensifying protests prompted by the downing of the commercial jet.
“They are lying that our enemy is America. Our enemy is right here!,” one video, posted Sunday by the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, showed. Iran’s authorities have disputed allegations they have been firing live ammunition.
Protests in Iran are not uncommon. Late last year, violent anti-government demonstrations erupted in more than 100 cities and towns after Iran’s theocratic regime dramatically raised gas prices at a time when Iran’s consumers have felt the impact of Trump administration economic sanctions. President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran after pulling out of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, a move that has been followed by heightened tensions between the two nations.
A growing number of high-profile voices in Iran have started publicly criticizing the government, which is unusual. These voices include a state TV anchor, a prominent actress and Iran’s only female Olympic medallist, Kimia Alizadeh, who announced over the weekend in an Instagram post that she had defected from the nation because of its “hypocrisy, lies, injustice.” Alizadeh said she had been used as a “tool” by Iran.
“They took me wherever they wanted,” she wrote on Instagram. “Whatever they said, I wore. Every sentence they ordered, I repeated.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday called on Trump to replace the Iranian nuclear deal with his own new agreement.
“If we’re going to get rid of it, let’s replace it and let’s replace it with the Trump deal,” Johnson said of the 2015 nuclear arms control deal with Tehran, in an interview with British TV.
While European signatories to the deal – Britain, France, Germany – have stayed in the accord, Iran has all but abandoned the agreement, saying last week that it had removed any limitations imposed on it by the deal over its enrichment of uranium.
On Tuesday, Britain, France and Germany triggered a dispute mechanism in the agreement with Iran, marking the most significant response yet to Tehran’s decision to no longer abide by the uranium enrichment limits set in the accord.
The move pushes the accord closer to complete collapse amid escalating diplomatic tensions between western nations and Iran. On Saturday, Iran briefly detained Britain’s ambassador in Tehran after he attended a vigil for victims of Flight 752.
The European move could pave the way for sanctions on Iran. These would be the first non-U.S. penalties on Iran since the White House exited the accord in 2015.
Barbara Slavin, who directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said that the protests don’t imply either a return to the status quo or the coming collapse of the Islamic Republic.
“This will be a huge test for the regime to see if it can level with the population and reduce the usual lying and propaganda,” she said. “People will expect some kind of accountability for the plane shoot-down. I remain optimistic that the system can evolve in a positive direction over time but a less-threatening security environment would certainly facilitate that and that is hard to see while Trump is in office.”
Canada’s leader Justin Trudeau said in a TV interview that the victims of the Iran-downed jetliner would still be alive were it not for tensions triggered by Trump’s Iran policy. “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,” he said.