Missiles, lies, and contrition. Has Iran changed?

the Monitor's Editorial Board

Contrition rarely plays a role on the world stage, which is one reason to note the sudden introspection by Iran after admitting it not only shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet Jan. 8 but also denied responsibility for three days. Here is how officials, after international exposure of the incident, finally took accountability, something demanded by Iranian protesters in recent days:

President Hassan Rouhani described the firing of a military missile at the civilian aircraft as an “unforgivable mistake.” The head of the Revolutionary Guard, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, apologized. “Never in my life was I so ashamed,” he said. The foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted an emoji showing a broken heart to express the official grief over the 176 people killed on board the civilian flight.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the armed forces to address their “shortcomings.” The government set up a task force to investigate the downing of the plane and tend to the victims’ families. It emphasized the need for “total honesty and transparency.” Iran now appears to be cooperating with countries whose citizens were killed by the missile.

The apologies didn’t stop there. Some journalists in the Iran’s highly controlled media also noted their role in spreading official lies. The Tehran Association of Journalists issued a statement saying, “Hiding the truth and spreading lies traumatized the public. What happened was a catastrophe for media in Iran.”

For a country that has tried to force a religion on others for 40 years, this burst of self-reflection hints that the regime may be open to more radical honesty despite a long record of deception and manipulation. Some experts contend Iran might be facing a “Chernobyl moment,” referring to the change in the Soviet Union after Russians learned of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986 and official attempts to cover it up.

Like many countries driven by ideology or ruled by powerful figures, Iran is not used to saying sorry. It seems to follow Benjamin Disraeli’s advice to “never explain, never apologize.” Yet this case of official humility, even if forced on the regime, could allow it to see the benefits of surrendering to the truth in the face of its weakness. “We are ashamed, but we will make recompense,” said General Salami.

While all these actions may merely be aimed at preserving the regime, the official remorse, repentance, and restitution are a small step toward the redemption of Iran. Other nations can take note of this self-reflection and hope this tragic incident has offered a lasting lesson to the Islamic republic.

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