When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led prayers at Tehran’s Grand Mosque for the first time in eight years on Friday, Iran’s supreme leader described the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Fight 752 by his military as a “bitter accident”—one that enemies abroad were exploiting as an excuse to discredit the Islamic Republic. But the real threat to the regime, which has spent decades trying to cement its rule, is the discontent of the Iranian public. Both the plane crash on January 8 and the cover-up that followed struck at the heart of the grievances that shape Iranians’ anger toward and alienation from their government. And if the demise of Flight 752 revealed the government’s malign disregard for its own citizens, its relentless suppression of the subsequent protests has only underscored its imperviousness to any meaningful accountability.
After decades of international sanctions that hamper Iran’s ability to buy new aircraft and spare parts, the country’s plane fleet is notoriously old and prone to catastrophe—so much so that the early reports citing engine problems sounded plausible to people grimly inured to aviation risks. But the early explanations for the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 quickly crumbled under the weight of obvious falsehoods. In reality, Flight 752 had been downed by Iran’s own air defenses. In the course of retaliating against the United States for the drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, Iranian military commanders apparently mistook the jetliner for an incoming American cruise missile. But this tragedy never would have occurred had Tehran taken the obvious precaution of halting civilian air traffic as it began missile strikes against U.S. forces in Iraq. Iranian leaders declined to take this step. Citing unnamed sources, the London-based Persian-language news channel Iran International, which is frequently critical of the Iranian government, reported that officials believed the presence of civilian aircraft in the skies would deter any possible U.S. counterattacks.