Hundreds of young men and women chant “shame, shame”. It is late afternoon on Saturday 11th of January, in front of Amir Kabir University in Tehran. Earlier that day the state TV aired a rare and astonishing admission from the military: The Revolutionary Guard had mistakenly shot and downed a civilian aircraft. Flight PS752 of the Ukraine Airlines crashed in the early morning on Wednesday, January 8th a few minutes after taking off from Tehran’s International Airport, killing all 176 people on board. A “disastrous error”, said Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who offered apologies to the victims, the world and the nations involved.
After learning the news, mourning vigils were organized in many universities in Tehran and other Iranian cities. Among the victims of the air crash were many Iranian students bound for Canada to study. Soon the vigils turned into demonstrations of anger. At the Amirkabir University of Technology around 1000 to 1,500 people chanted slogans. Many videos on social media showed people chanting “resignation not enough, prosecute those responsible”. Some chanted against the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, others shouted against the incompetence of the Revolutionary Guard. Security forces intervened with tear gas to disperse the crowd. Protests continued the following days in many universities in Tehran and in Isfahan – again met with tear gas.
These images are in stark contrast with those seen only a few days earlier in the streets of Iran. On the 6th and 7th of January immense crowds had gathered to commemorate general Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the special Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard killed by a US missile attack on January 3rd at the Baghdad airport. Demonstrations of popular grief accompanied his coffin in a commemoration tour in many cities. At the funeral and burial in his hometown Kerman, the crowd was so huge that fifty people were killed in a stampede, the Iranian media reported.
It would be a mistake to consider such crowds merely as a propaganda display by the regime. In fact, General Soleimani was considered a martyr and a national hero and his killing united Iranians. Yet, only a few days later, the “disastrous mistake” of flight PS752 reversed public sentiment. Saturday and Sunday’s protests are numerically far less important than the huge commemorations for the slain general, but the public debate sparked by the “unintentional” air crash is much wider, reaching even the conservative base. In just a few days Iran plunged into a national crisis, and a rare moment of national cohesion seems to have vanished.
Public hero (or enemy) n° 1
Qassem Soleimani, 62, was Commander in Chief of the Qods Force, the special Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (Irgc) in charge for external operations that oversee Iran’s strategy in the Middle East. In the Western media he was often painted as an obscure figure, a “master of intrigue” (The New York Times), the “shadow commander” (according to this profile published by the New Yorker in 2013). He was credited with having built a network of militias and allied forces that allowed Iran to expand its influence from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and up to Yemen through a mix of military action, intelligence and political negotiations. He was sometimes described as one of the most influential military leaders in the region; some saw him as a mastermind of terrorism. He must have been on the intelligence radar screens of the United States (and obviously others in the region, notably Israel) for many years. It was the administration of Donald Trump, though, that designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, and it was Trump that ordered the killing of Soleimani (along with him, the American raid killed one of his lieutenants and his longtime ally, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Unit, considered one of the main pro-Iranian militias in Iraq). A “total monster”, as President Trump said; a “Number One enemy”.
On the contrary, in Iran, General Soleimani was seen as a patriot that risked his life on the frontline to protect the nation from external threats. This feeling was not limited to Islamic Republic die-hards, as the large crowds at his funerals demonstrate. In fact, the late commander of the Qods Force was also immensely popular, which is unusual for a military leader anywhere, let alone in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
His military carrier started in 1979 when he enrolled in the newly created Revolutionary Guard; in his twenties he fought in the Iran-Iraq war (1980 to 1988), where he was promoted to some level of command. Later he was sent to Kerman to fight the drug trafficking gangs active between Afghanistan and Iranian Baluchistan. In 1998, Soleimani was promoted to command the IRGC Qods Force, which at that time was not the powerful force of today: in fact it was precisely him who widened its scope and responsibilities, overseeing first the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, before turning West. He soon became a key figure of Iranian foreign policy from Baghdad to Damascus and Lebanon, gaining the trust and support of the Supreme Leader.
Public notoriety, though, came later when the militias of the Islamic State started to gain ground from Syria to Iraq in 2014 preceded by a flurry of news and gruesome videos of beheadings. The Islamic State militias approaching Baghdad was an unacceptable threat for Iran; to counter this threat Soleimani started to organize an intervention on the ground – even before an international coalition had materialized. The Western press noted the Iranian intervention. It was then that Solaimani’s name reached the wider Iranian public.
According to Iranian journalist Rohollah Faghihi, “the Western media helped create the vision of Soleimani as an Iranian hero”. Media profiles and news were often translated. “The Iranian media rapidly picked up on his popularity, as did the government”, wrote Faghihi. Iranian media reports quoted security officials or Western sources about how Soleimani was fighting the empire of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “Videos showing Soleimani on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria went viral”. The Iranians, we must recall, were terrified by the events unfolding in Syria; many saw it as a warning of how easily a war could rip to pieces a civilized nation. Soleimani, the general consensus agreed, “intervened beyond our borders in order to avoid violence and terrorism from spreading inside our borders”.
By 2015 or 2016, Soleimani’s popularity matched that of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, acclaimed by the Iranians for reaching a nuclear deal with the West and putting an end to Iran’s isolation. Certainly, publishing photos and videos was deliberate: the image of a national hero served the purpose of the hardline camp, clearly trying to portray him as their supporter and “exploit” his popularity.
The truth was nevertheless that Soleimani was not interested in entering domestic politics and was less a hard-liner than many had previously thought. He is said to have turned down the Conservative’s call to be their candidate in the 2017 presidential elections (when Hassan Rohani won his second term). Although refraining from direct involvement, many of his public gestures placed general Soleimani rather among the moderates. He was a longtime supporter of the late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-times president considered a pragmatic moderate who supported reformist alternatives and was openly hated by the hard-liners and military conservatives. Following the controversial 2009 presidential elections, when Rafsanjani was sidelined for siding with the leader of the Green Movement Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Soleimani maintained ties with him. In 2017, he was among the very few senior figures to visit Rafsanjani’s family after his death. Soleimani was also very close to the reformist Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri and to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, with whom he held regular meetings. When Zarif and President Rohani came under the fire from the hard-liners for negotiating the nuclear deal, Soleimani never joined that chorus, at least not in public.
All this allowed many Iranians to think of general Soleimani as a patriot “protecting the nation” and as a moderate at the same time. He was not seen as a political figure, although of course he was part of the establishment of the Islamic Republic. This helps explain why so many Iranians took to the streets to mourn him. Not just common people: from opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi who has been under house arrest for a decade, to notorious writers and artists, to journalist Emaddedin Baghi (many times imprisoned for his critical writings) – even to London-based journalist Massoud Behnoud to student leader and political prisoner Abdollah Momeni – many expressed grief and condemned his assassination.
From unity to division
Such was the “capital” of national unity that the assassination of general Soleimani helped to build. Then, in a few days it was squandered. The students’ protests, in fact, are not the sole public reaction to the news of the “disastrous error” of shooting down a civilian airplane. Many domestic media outlets apologized to the public for the false news they had carried in the previous three days. A public apology was published in a statement from Irna, Iran’s state news agency. Pro-government daily newspaper Iran published the headline “Unforgivable”, with the names of all 176 victims. The more moderate newspaper, Shargh, read “Apologize. Resign”.
Much remains to be clarified about the circumstances of the tragic crash of flight PS752, starting from the analysis of the flight recorders: it will be the mandate of an international inquiry. It is easy to think that the rare admission of responsibility by the Revolutionary Guard came because the evidence was overwhelming and the traces of a missile impossible to conceal.
The head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Air Force, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, stated on state television and to the Iranian Parliament that he is ready to take responsibility. “When I learned what had happened, I really wished I had died”, he stated. He mentioned a communication breakdown and the fatal error of an operator who mistook the airplane for an enemy target. Only a few hours before, the Iranian Air Force had launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at US targets in Iraq, and the military was bracing for possible reprisals. “In these circumstances, because of human error, unintentionally, the wrong decision was taken” and the airplane was hit. Why air space was not closed to civilian traffic in those tense hours remains to be explained.
Ironically, only days earlier, General Hajizadeh was triumphantly receiving compliments for the precision strike that targeted American installations without any loss of life. The launch was the Iranian response to General Soleimani’s assassination, and in a message later sent through the Swiss delegation (the only formal diplomatic channel between Iran and the US) Tehran tipped that no further action would be taken for the time being. Washington too, decided to avoid reprisal. In about a week, Iran and the US had walked to the brink and back.
Action, response: the open questions
The longer-term impact of General Soleimani’s assassination remains to be fully evaluated, from the fight against the Islamic State (which reacted enthusiastically to the death of its main opponent on the ground), to the chance of ending the war in Yemen, to the Palestinian-Israeli scene – to the wider American strategy in the Middle East, which is raising tough questions in Washington. But at least, for the moment neither Iran nor the US seem to really want a full-on war.
In Iran meanwhile equally tough questions will be raised. Internal inquiries must be ongoing: was it a security failure that allowed General Soleimani to be hit? How was it possible to mistake a civilian aircraft for an enemy target? Some “head rolling” appears most likely; perhaps the Leader will take the occasion to sideline some hardliners and recover some legitimacy. Will that be enough? Will the accidental downing of flight PS752 be a “Chernobyl moment” for the Iranian leadership?
Among the many comments circulated on social media after learning the horrific truth about flight PS752, one said: “I’m angry about #Soleimani b/c it undermines our sovereignty, I’m angry that US actions may lead to war, I’m angry at my gov for its incompetence in downing a civilian plane, I’m most angry that I have no hope, no hope for sanctions relief, no hope for our future”.
Photo: Geoff Robins / AFP
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