By Babak Dehghanpisheh
DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians called on social media on Wednesday for fresh demonstrations a week after the shooting down of a passenger plane, seeking to turn the aftermath of the crash into a sustained campaign against Iran’s leadership.
Protesters, with students at the forefront, have staged daily rallies in Tehran and other cities since Saturday, when after days of denials the authorities admitted bringing down a Ukrainian plane last week, killing all 176 aboard.
“We’re coming to the streets,” one posting circulating on social media said on Wednesday, urging people to join nationwide demonstrations against a “thieving and corrupt government”.
Most of those killed on the plane were Iranians or dual citizens, many of them students returning to studies abroad from holiday visits with their families.
It remains to be seen whether the protests will lead to sustained violence. After several days of unrest, when images posted to the internet showed demonstrators being beaten by the police and shocked with electric batons, protests on Tuesday appear to have been quieter. Two months ago, authorities killed hundreds of demonstrators to put down protests sparked by fuel price hikes.
The plane was downed by air defenses on Jan. 8 when the armed forces were on high alert for U.S. reprisals following tit-for-tat military strikes, the latest escalation in a crisis that has rumbled on for years over Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran has dismissed the idea of a new deal to resolve the nuclear row, as proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump and described by Britain’s prime minister as a “Trump deal.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Trump, who quit an existing nuclear pact in 2018, broke his promises.
The military and top officials apologized profusely for the “unforgivable error” that brought the plane down and said it would prosecute those to blame, in a bid to quell the outrage.
Thousands of protesters have been shown in videos gathering in the past four days in cities across Iran. Many have been outside universities. Tehran’s central Azadi Square has also been a focus. But the scale of protests and unrest is difficult to determine due to restrictions on independent reporting.
State-affiliated media has offered few details on rallies.
Police have denied shooting at protesters and say officers were told to show restraint. The judiciary said it had arrested 30 people but would show tolerance to “legal protests”.
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said a person who had posted a video online last week of a missile striking the plane has been taken into custody by the Revolutionary Guards, the elite force that said one of its operators shot down the plane.
Iranians were outraged the military took days to admit it had shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. They asked why the plane had been allowed to take off at a time of high tension.
Iran had launched missile strikes against U.S. targets in Iraq hours earlier in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian commander in Iraq on Jan. 3.
Security camera footage showed two missiles, fired 30 seconds apart, hitting the plane after takeoff, the New York Times reported. U.S. intelligence officials said on Jan. 9 heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected.
The disaster and unrest have piled pressure on the Iran’s rulers, who are already struggling to keep the economy running under stringent U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington withdrew from the nuclear pact Tehran had with world powers.
Britain’s ambassador to Tehran was detained, accused of attending a protest. He said he was paying respects at a vigil for victims.
Judicial officials urged the authorities to expel the envoy and social media posts said he had left. The foreign ministry in Britain, which has long had strained ties with Iran, said he was on a previously planned trip and was not leaving permanently.
On Thursday, London hosts a meeting of Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the downed plane to discuss legal action against Iran, Ukraine said.
Canada, which had 57 citizens on the flight, has sent investigators to Iran, where they toured the crash site on Tuesday, Iranian media reported.
(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi and the London bureau; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Peter Graff)