Protests are continuing in Iran. But increasingly the focus of Iranian ire is the theocracy itself after the government belatedly admitted it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 on board.
That the mood could shift so quickly among the massive crowds grieving Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Iraq, seemed to surprise Iranian officials. Yet those who've been paying attention to the protest movement in Iran know that it was hitting critical mass before the Soleimani killing and the retaliatory Iranian airstrike against U.S. bases in Iraq.
Protesters already had justification to take to the streets. Iran's government, concurrently feckless and reckless, has stolen yet another generation's future with its ideologically driven militarism that has destabilized the Mideast and made the Persian nation a pariah state in much of the world. The initial lies denying any involvement in the plane's downing — followed by admission and contrition for the tragedy — has led to a metastasizing outrage that has even convulsed conservatives normally supportive of the Islamic Republic.
"They killed our geniuses and replaced them with clerics!" chanted protesters in Shiraz, who could have been talking about Iran's repressive rule at home as well as the victims of the plane crash, many of whom were students. Some of the chants in Tehran were more geopolitically pointed. "Our enemy is right here. … They lie to us that it's America," some protesters said.
They're right about their regime — and our government. The Iranian people are not the enemy. The conflict is with the government, which is directly responsible for the deaths of scores of U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as other regionally malign activity.
President Donald Trump tweeted (in both English and Farsi) his support for the protesters. Among his messages was this: "To the leaders of Iran — DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. 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!"
Trump's appeal for media freedom would be more powerful if it wasn't inconsistent with his denigration of U.S. news media outlets as the "enemy of the people" and his dismissal of accurate but unflattering accounts as "fake news." But he's right about the protests in Iran, and Congress should amplify his support for those who are taking to the streets. And the U.S. should be especially vigilant that Iranian hard-liners don't try to refocus the narrative by provoking American or allied interests or citizens.
As far as the tragedy itself, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is right to "expect Iran to assure its readiness for a full and open investigation, to bring those responsible to justice, to return the bodies of the victims, to pay compensation and to make official apologies through diplomatic channels." Canada, which lost 57 citizens, as well as other nations affected should expect the same treatment.
In America, the debate about the Trump administration's justification for the strike and overall foreign policy strategy is necessary. But there should be no debate that protesting Iranians deserve protection, not repression.