TEHRAN -- Anti-government protests are swelling in Iran again after the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) admitted over the weekend to shooting down a Ukrainian passenger airliner last week.
While that admission quelled the prospects of greater international escalation, it reignited anti-government protests inside the country. Demonstrations against petrol price hikes shook the country last autumn before the regime suppressed them violently.
Tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets with renewed outrage over the weekend and continued unabated Monday (January 13).
The protesters shouted, "Death to the dictator" -- a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- "Death to liars" and other anti-regime slogans.
Numerous videos posted on social media showed demonstrators calling for Khamenei to step down and for those responsible for downing the plane to be prosecuted.
"Khamenei, have shame. Leave the country," demonstrators chanted.
Some student protesters also called the IRGC "incompetent" and "the people's shame".
Tear gas was used on a number of demonstrations across the country, and live ammunition use was also reported.
There was heavy police presence around Tehran's iconic Azadi Square south of the centre, and riot police armed with water cannon and batons were seen at Amir Kabir, Sharif and Tehran universities as well as Enqelab Square, AFP reported. About 50 Basij militiamen brandishing paintball guns, potentially to mark protesters to authorities, were also seen near Amir Kabir.
World leaders are calling on the Iranian regime to respect the rights of the Iranian people to voice their dissent and not repeat the bloody crackdown that occurred just two months ago.
A shock decision to impose petrol price hikes sparked nationwide demonstrations last November.
The demonstrations turned deadly as the Iranian regime carried out a "vicious crackdown" -- arresting thousands of protesters, journalists, human rights activists and students.
At least 304 people were killed and thousands injured between November 15-18 "as authorities crushed protests using lethal force", according to Amnesty International.
During the height of the unrest, Tehran blocked the internet in an attempt to prevent images and video of the regime's brutality from being broadcast to the world.
IRGC admits tragic mistake
The Ukrainian airliner went down in the dark on January 8 just minutes after takeoff -- and just hours after Tehran launched missiles at US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC's Quds Force. A US drone strike killed Soleimani in Baghdad January 3.
All 176 passengers and crew were killed including 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons.
Despite video and circumstantial evidence pointing to a surface-to-air missile hitting the airliner, Tehran continued for days to deny a missile strike took down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752.
"One thing is for certain: this airplane was not hit by a missile," Ali Abedzadeh, Iran's civil aviation chief and deputy transport minister, told a news conference in Tehran on January 10.
But on Saturday (January 11), faced with increasing international and internal pressure, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani finally admitted the truth -- that the Iranian military shot down the plane in a "catastrophic mistake".
The IRGC's aerospace commander accepted full responsibility for the January 8 downing but said the missile operator acted independently, targeting the passenger airliner after mistaking it for a "cruise missile".
"It was a short-range missile that exploded next to the plane. That's why the plane was able" to continue flying for a while, Brig. Gen. Amirali Hajizadeh said Saturday in remarks aired on state TV. "It exploded when it hit the ground."
The operator failed to obtain approval from his superiors because of disruptions to a communications system, he said.
Iran has a Russian-made air defence system, which utilises outdated software that is unable to discern between military and civilian aircraft.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demanded that Tehran punish those responsible, pay compensation and apologise.
"We expect Iran... to bring the guilty to the courts," he wrote on Facebook.
Closure and accountability were needed after Iran's announcement, said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
He demanded "transparency, and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims".
Rifts inside Iranian regime
As public outrage grows over the Iranian downing of the Ukrainian airliner -- and what many observers see as the government's attempted cover-up of the incident -- deep fissures between the Iranian political leadership and military leadership are emerging.
Several Iranian newspapers criticised the government over the downing of the jet and the aftermath, including how it was handled.
"Apologise, resign," the reformist daily Etemad headlined on Sunday (January 12).
"Unforgivable," said the official government newspaper Iran, which published the names of all the victims on the image of a black plane tail.
Tehran's Hamshahri daily splashed "Shame" in blood-red letters across its front page.
"Unbelievable," read the front-page banner of Arman-e Meli, another reformist newspaper.
Kayhan, a hard-line daily, led on Khamenei's "strict orders" to follow up on the "painful incident of the plane crash".
The semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, published harsh commentary condemning Iranian leaders' "shortcomings" that made the tragedy of the plane crash "twice as bitter".
"It is pivotal that those who were hiding the truth from the public ... be held accountable," it read. "We cannot let this go."
"Deep apology for painful mistake," said the front page of Javan, which is also close to the IRGC.
Khamenei ordered the IRGC to address "shortcomings" to ensure this kind of error does not happen again, his office said, adding he expressed his "sincere condolences" to the families of the deceased.