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Protests in Iran: Rage Over Downed Jet, as Lawmakers Demand Accountability

Widespread anger at the Iranian government for shooting down a passenger plane and then misleading the public about it simmered for a third day on Monday, with the police and protesters facing off in at least two cities and increasing demands from lawmakers for accountability.

After days of denials, Iran acknowledged Saturday that it had mistakenly shot down the Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 people.

A government spokesman, Ali Rabeei, said Monday that Iranian officials had not lied to the public when they insisted the plane crashed because of mechanical problems, but were providing the limited information they had. He said that President Hassan Rouhani had learned that missiles were fired at the plane only on Friday, two days after it crashed near the Tehran airport.

Demands for government resignations spread Monday from hard-liners, who support Iran’s clerical government and called for officials to step down over the weekend, to members of the more moderate reformist parties, Mr. Rouhani’s base.

Bahram Parsaie, a prominent lawmaker from Shiraz, said that it was not enough for Mr. Rouhani and his government to issue statements and that they needed to resign. He warned that if the president and his cabinet were not transparent with the public, Parliament would take legal action against them.

Ali Shakouri Rad, the head of a reformist political party, said the growing rift between the public and the clerical government had become insurmountable. “Covering up the mistake of downing the passenger jet with missiles was throwing acid at the image of the Islamic Republic,” he said on Twitter.

In a sign of the tensions between Iran’s clerical rulers and the elected officials, the government said Monday that it had disqualified 90 current lawmakers from running for re-election, Iranian official news media reported. The lawmakers, mostly members of reformist and centrist factions, account for roughly a third of the 290-member Parliament.

Several leading reformist politicians responded by calling for a boycott of the parliamentary election next month.

The rift over how the plane crash was handled also spread to the official news media on Monday, with several prominent state television and radio hosts quitting their jobs, saying they could no longer lie for the government.

Gelare Jabbari, the popular host of state TV’s Channel Two programs, changed her profile picture on Instagram to black and posted a public apology.

“It was very hard for me to believe the murdering of my countrymen,” she wrote. “Forgive me for believing it too late. I apologize for lying to you on TV for 13 years.”

The journalists’ union for the province of Tehran also issued a public apology for helping spread the government’s misinformation about the cause of the crash.

“We are currently holding a funeral service for public trust,” the statement said. “The first coffins are for state broadcast company and all media and websites.”

The union called on all Iranian journalists to no longer “amplify the cover-ups of officials” and to conduct their reporting with skepticism and independent investigations.

State television, however, continued to play down the mistaken downing of the plane, with one anchor saying “it was nothing compared to the main event” — the Iranian missile attack on American forces in Iraq hours earlier.

The Iranian attack, which caused moderate damage but killed no one, was conducted in retaliation for the American killing of Iran’s terror mastermind in a drone attack on Jan. 3.

Just hours later, a Ukraine International Airlines flight was taking off from Tehran before dawn on Wednesday, and Iranian forces were on high alert for an American counterattack. An Iranian crew, confusing the jet for an attacking craft, fired an antiaircraft missile at it about three minutes after it took off.

On Monday, the government closed the popular reformist news website Entekhab for publishing false rumors over the weekend that Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of National Security Council, had resigned.

Videos from inside Iran shared on social media on Monday showed university students in Isfahan and the capital, Tehran, chanting against the country’s clerical rulers while riot police officers were deployed nearby.

Thousands of students gathered at Iran’s elite technical university, Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, 14 of whose recent graduates died when the plane was shot down. Some lashed out our Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“We want transparency,” said one student, addressing the crowd. “This country has not had transparency for years. You have lied to us. the state broadcast company has lied to us. You think we are all stupid. The supreme leader must answer to us about the country’s problems. Mr. Khamenei, why are you lying?”

A group of more than 30 artists, filmmakers and actors issued a joint statement on Monday saying they would not participate in the government-sponsored Fajr competition, Iran’s equivalent of the Oscars.

One of the signatories, the well-known filmmaker Rakhshan Bani Etemad, was briefly detained and interrogated for several hours after she called for a nationwide vigil for the victims of the crash.

There were no reports of violence in the protests on Monday, as there had been over the weekend, when there were videos of protesters carrying off bleeding comrades as gunshots echoed in the background.

The authorities in Iran denied that security forces had opened fire.

Late Sunday, Mr. Trump warned Iran not to target the demonstrators. Framing himself as a supporter of the media, which in other circumstances he has frequently disparaged, Mr. Trump exhorted Iran’s leaders to allow unfettered reporting.

“To the leaders of Iran — DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS,” he wrote on Twitter. “Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!”

In addition to the domestic outrage, Iran may also face demands for compensation from nations whose citizens were killed on the plane, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko of Ukraine told Reuters on Monday in an interview in Singapore.

Foreign ministers from five nations will meet in London on Thursday to discuss legal action, he said. The participants will include Canada, which lost 57 citizens, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Sweden and another country he did not identify.

Mr. Prystaiko said Tehran had agreed to hand over the jet’s black boxes for analysis, but had yet to set a date to do so.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have soared since 2018, when Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of an international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program and imposed the first in a series of sanctions on Iran to punish it for what his administration sees as its destabilizing activities across the Middle East.

After a number of attacks on United States assets and allies in the Middle East in recent months, Mr. Trump ordered the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. He headed Iran’s efforts to direct allied militias in the region.

Those militias include an Iraqi group that the United States accused of firing rockets at a military base in Iraq late last month, killing one American contractor. United States forces retaliated against militia bases, killing more than two dozen fighters, and militias responded by surrounding the American Embassy compound in Baghdad, breaching its perimeter wall, setting fires and throwing rocks.

The killing of General Suleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport raised fears that Iran or its network of allies across the Middle East would respond against the United States and its allies, possibly igniting a regional war.

Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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