On January 8, the air defense system of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airline passenger plane, killing all of its 176 passengers. More than half of the airline’s passengers where Iranian nationals, some of whom also had Canadian citizenship, including a number of young students studying at Canadian universities. The accident and the death of so many Iranian citizens, as well as citizens of Ukraine and other countries, caused a great deal of sorrow and grief in Iran, especially coming soon after 69 people had died in a stampede during funeral ceremonies for Qassem Soleimani in Kerman.
The extent of Iranians’ sorrow and grief, however, was nothing compared to their sense of betrayal by and loss of confidence in their government, upon learning that Iranian leaders had initially withheld the truth from them about the real cause of the tragedy. This sense of grief, betrayal, and loss of confidence led to student protests at the Sharif and Amir Kabir universities in Tehran. During the protests, students chanted anti-regime slogans and reportedly tore a banner with Soleimani’s picture on it. More seriously, they demanded the resignation of key Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Covering Up the Mistake
The principal cause of this anger was the Iranian government’s initial effort to cover up the real cause of the tragedy. For the first few days after the plane crash, Iranian authorities claimed that engine failure was the cause, even though other countries, including Canada, said early on that the accident was caused by the erroneous firing of a missile.
Eventually, in the face of mounting evidence and international demand for a thorough examination of the causes of the crash, Iranian authorities — including the commander of the IRGC’s air force, General Amir Ali Hadjizadeh — admitted that the accident was caused by a missile attack. Under heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran, radar showed the aircraft approaching too close to a sensitive military site, leading Iranian personnel to fire on it. Upon admitting their responsibility, Iran’s military and civilian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, apologized and expressed their condolences to all of the victims. They promised that a full investigation would be conducted, that those responsible for the accident would be severely punished, and that victims’ families would be compensated.
However, the damage to the government’s and the IRGC’s credibility and trustworthiness was done. In the following days, Iranian news sites were full of items highlighting a crisis of confidence and loss of trust between the people and the government. The extent of this crisis is not very surprising because, historically, Iranians have not held their governments and official news organizations in great trust. However, this time the people’s sense of betrayal and their loss of trust in government was especially strong.
Long-Term Political Fallout: Undermining the IRGC
The airline accident has also damaged the reputation and credibility of two very influential institutions of the Islamic Republic. The first casualty has been the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The accident has all but wiped out the public sympathy and prestige the IRGC gained due to Qassem Soleimani’s killing by the United States and Iran’s measured response to his death, which prevented an all-out war with the U.S.
Through the years, the IRGC has exaggerated its capabilities, the accuracy of its missiles, and the Corps’ military expertise, and has boasted that it would defeat any aggressor. The airline accident, however, raises doubts about the effectiveness of its air force and air defense system as well as the efficiency and expertise of its officers. In view of the sensitive conditions in which Iran finds itself these days, and which at least some Iranians blame on the influence of political hardliners (including the IRGC itself), it is inevitable that its prestige and possibly even its influence would diminish. If this change in the people’s estimation of the IRGC were to lead to a change in institution’s outlook and priorities, it would be a positive development. In time, it could even lead to a rationalization of Iran’s armed forces and the combining of the regular armed forces and the IRGC. It might even allow the government more leeway in pursuing diplomatic means for resolving Iran’s many problems.
The Crisis of Leadership and the Role of the Supreme Leader
Iran’s Supreme Leader is also the commander of the Iranian Armed Forces, including the IRGC. Therefore, the ultimate responsibility for any mistakes made by any branch of the Iranian military lies with him. Moreover, it is well known that there is a symbiotic relationship between the Leader and the IRGC. They share the same ideology and world view and they are both committed to the perpetuation of the revolution no matter the costs. Thus, in the eyes of many Iranians, they at least share in responsibility for Iran’s current woes.
The Supreme Leader thus cannot escape responsibility for Iran’s troubles. Already, consecutive presidents — including Hassan Rouhani — have complained of an anomalous situation in which they bear all the responsibility for the failure of economic and other policies, while the Leader has all the decision-making authority. Although it may not happen immediately, the downing of the Ukrainian airliner will contribute to more vigorous questioning of the current structure of power and decision-making process in Iran, including the position of the Leader and his privileges.
If Iranian military and political leaders learn the right lessons from this incident, they will implement the long overdue reform of Iran’s political, economic, and administrative structures and will alter the most counter-productive and unrealistic aspects of Tehran’s foreign policy. But if they don’t, the inherent contradictions of Iran’s political system will be exacerbated and the country’s chances of a peaceful transition to a post-Islamist system will vastly diminish.