How Iranians pivoted from condemning the US to dramatic protests against their own government after officials shot down a commercial plane

Ellen Cranley
iran protests

Mona Hoobehfekr/ISNA via AP

  • Iranians staged three days of increasingly fiery protests in the latest spike of tensions after armed forces shot down a plane and its 176 passengers. 
  • Protesters flooded the streets of Tehran to take aim at the country's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with harsh demands like "death to the dictator" displayed on homemade signs. 
  • Witnesses told outlets and wrote on social media that riot police fired tear gas and live ammunition at demonstrators. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Iranians staged three days of increasingly fiery protests in response to the armed forces strike that killed 176 passengers on a commercial flight in an angry demand for the resignation of the country's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Videos posted on social media over the weekend showed authorities appearing to ramp up physical responses to the crowds, with witnesses saying that riot police fired tear gas and live ammunition at demonstrators. 

The anti-government demonstrations consuming streets of Tehran and some of the country's biggest universities is a sharp pivot from protests pushing back on the US and its allies in the wake of a targeted strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian military official, in accordance with orders from President Donald Trump.

See how violent protests have been plaguing Iranians since November, and how a shift in attitude is ramping up pressure on the government. 

Fiery protests sprung up in late 2019, when the country saw its worst civil unrest since the Islamic revolution 40 years ago.

iran protests 2019

Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA/Reuters

What started as a grassroots response to a 300% increase in fuel prices passed by the Iranian government in mid-November spread across the country, sparking protests over issues like slow economic growth and corruption in the government. 

Over the course of the protests, it was later revealed that Iranian security forces killed at least 200 protesters


The friction between Iranians and their government spread alongside mounting antagonization of the US in the region.

iran protests 2019

Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA/Reuters

While violent protests plagued the country throughout November, officials blamed the fiery unrest on foreign interference. 

Gen. Hossein Salami, head of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, pointed at the US, Britain, and Israel as responsible nations, even issuing a harsh warning to powerful Western democracies in front of a gathering of pro-government protesters.

"If you cross our red line, we will destroy you," Salami reportedly said in late November. "We will not leave any move unanswered."

The US shocked the region with a targeted strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian military official, in accordance with orders from President Donald Trump.

This photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, early Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. military has killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, at the direction of President Donald Trump. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)

Associated Press

Sources told CNN that Trump and his senior security advisers had been discussing a strike to remove Soleimani in the months before the mission, which was finalized in a surprising decision by Trump while he was deliberating with his team after several bloody conflicts in the region had popped up in the days since Christmas. 

Crowds gathered to honor Soleimani almost immediately after the attack in a four-day funeral.

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators hold placards depicting Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, during a protest against killing of Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who died in an air strike at Baghdad airport, outside U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Murad Sezer


Source: The Financial Times

As tensions between the countries spiraled, Iranians flooded Tehran to present a show of mourning for Soleimani while taking bold shots at the US and its allies.

iran protests

TTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that a "harsh retaliation is waiting" for Americans after the killing. 

Anti-US demonstrations in Iran were matched with protests in American cities and other countries that pushed back on the possibility of the US entering a war and sending thousands of more troops to the Middle East.

iran protests

PAUL ZINKEN/dpa/AFP via Getty Images

Amid rising pressure to justify the successful strike, the Pentagon said in a statement that it had targeted Soleimani because he "was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region," but activists took aim at the move as reckless, and a step towards a possibly devastating war.

The US and Iran traded hits on each others' forces in the week after the strike before Iran unleashed a shocking attack on a commercial airliner.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 file photo, debris at the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. The crash of a Ukrainian jetliner near Tehran this week that killed all 176 on board comes as a test for Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who took office less than eight months ago with no prior political experience. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

Associated Press

Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 crashed shortly after it took off from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers on board.

There were 82 Iranians, 11 Ukrainians, 63 Canadians, students, and newlyweds who were killed in the January 8 crash, which was identified in the following days as having been shot down on by Revolutionary Guard air defense forces.



Thousands flooded the streets of Tehran to honor the victims of the tragic flight, but the government's bungled response cast an angry mood over devastated Iranians.

iran vigil

Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS/File

The country initially denied responsibility for the plane crash, suggesting it was a mechanical problem. However, in a statement released by military officials early January 11, Iran admitted to hitting the plane with a missile. 

Despite the statement, foreign minister Javad Zarif immediately pointed some blame at the US, saying the crash was caused by  "human error at a time of crisis caused by US adventurism."

Shortly after the statement was released, weekend vigils for the passengers who were killed in the attack devolved into fiery demonstrations that saw Iranians marching with signs to demand the resignation of the country's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

The city was once again embroiled in violent protests, as some held signs demanding "death to the liar."

iran protests

Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Videos and pictures from the protests reported by outlets like The New York Times show angry protesters chanting  "death to the dictator," and "shameless." 

Video posted to social media showed some chanting "They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here" as other footage captures riot police clashing with the protesters and responding with tear gas. 

Witnesses told the Guardian that some officers had fired live ammunition at the crowds. 


The protesters earned goodwill wishes from President Donald Trump, who tweeted in English and Farsi to warn the government against targeting those demonstrating.

donald trump trump tower

Drew Angerer/Getty Images



Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Trump's support for Iranians.

"The voice of the Iranian people is clear," Pompeo tweeted alongside video of a chanting crowd. "They are fed up with the regime's lies, corruption, ineptitude, and brutality of the IRGC under @khamenei_ir's kleptocracy."

What started as a Saturday night vigil turned into a full weekend demonstration led by activists and students.

iran protests

STR/AFP via Getty Images

At least two of the capital city's universities were the main gathering points for protesters, including the prestigious Sharif University of Technology, 14 recent graduates of which died when the plane was shot down.

Internet connections around key spots in the demonstrations were reportedly shut off as authorities sought to contain the protests.

iran protests


Internet-access watchdog Netblocks said in a Monday tweet that internet connectivity was dropped on the third day of protests as the national connection remained largely stable.

Netblocks had previously tracked internet shutdowns in the midst of protests that disrupted the city in November and December

Police denied shooting protesters in violent clashes, but demonstrations roiled on for a third day.

iran protests

Mona Hoobehfekr/ISNA via AP

As top advisers in the White House rallied around Trump's defense of killing Soleimani to control tensions in the region, the Iranian government was facing pressure from groups centered in the capital city and large universities for further explanation or next moves in a drastic attitude shift.

"The regime is struggling to manage this crisis," said Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies told The Washington Post. "One week ago they were in control of the narrative. They were able to exploit themes of anti-imperialism and nationalism to cover up the internal crisis in Iran."


After days of protest, the country's leadership announced arrests had been made for shooting down the airplane in the first critical steps of handling the incident's larger fallout.

iran protests

Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via REUTERS

In the last stop on a U-turn by the Iranian government that had initially rejected reports of the downed plane, a judicial spokesperson, Gholamhossein Esmaili, said at a Tuesday news conference that an undisclosed number of people had been arrested in connection with the incident. 

After triggering a vocal response in the capital city, the Iranian's next steps in dealing with the aftermath of the incident could be a "watershed moment for Iran," Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a research fellow at the London-based thinktank Royal United Services Institute, told NBC News.

Read the original article on Business Insider