KYIV, Ukraine — Iran’s stunning admission that its forces errantly downed a Ukrainian jetliner — reversing three days of denial — did little to quell growing fury inside the country and beyond on Saturday as the deadly tragedy turned into a volatile political crisis for Tehran’s leaders and overshadowed their struggle with the United States.
Ukrainian officials criticized Iran’s conduct, suggesting that the Iranians would not have admitted responsibility if investigators from Ukraine had not found evidence of a missile strike in the wreckage of the crash, which killed all 176 people aboard.
Protests erupted in Tehran and other Iranian cities as dumbfounded citizens found a new reason to mistrust Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and other officials. Protest videos even showed some shouting “Khamenei is a murderer!” and anti-riot police tear-gassing violent demonstrators.
Khamenei said he had ordered subordinates to be honest about Iran’s responsibility for the disaster. Both he and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran said they had not learned the true cause until an internal military investigation was completed Friday. But that assertion raised new questions about how the two top leaders in the hierarchy — Khamenei is the commander-in-chief — could not have known.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, in his first reaction to Iran’s announcement, said his country would “insist on a full admission of guilt” by Tehran. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, home to many of those aboard the destroyed jetliner, demanded a “full and complete investigation” and said “Iran must take full responsibility.” Both spoke by phone with Rouhani.
Contradictions and miscues complicated Iran’s message even as it took responsibility for the downing of the plane, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, a Boeing 737-800 that was only a few years old. Iran’s military, in its initial admission early Saturday, said the flight’s crew had taken a sharp, unexpected turn that brought it near a sensitive military base — an assertion that was immediately disputed by the Ukrainians.
Hours later, an Iranian commander who accepted full responsibility for the disaster agreed that the Ukrainians were right.
“The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly,” said the commander, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who leads the airspace unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard — a powerful, hard-line military force. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.”
The Ukrainians further accused Iran of having recklessly permitted commercial flights during a security emergency and of having violated universally accepted procedures for a post-crash investigation. Bulldozers had heaped debris from the plane into piles on the ground.
“Everything was done absolutely inappropriately,” Oleksiy Danilov, the Ukrainian security official overseeing the crash inquiry, said in an interview with The New York Times, referring to how Iranian authorities had handled the site of the crash.
Within Iran, as citizens vented anger toward their government, officials offered a mix of contrition and an insistence that Iran was not solely to blame. Rouhani called the error an “unforgivable mistake.” Hajizadeh, whose forces were responsible, said he had wished death upon himself because of the blunder.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wrote in an apology posted on Twitter: “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”
But the official expressions of remorse did nothing to mollify angry Iranians who only a few days earlier were united in outraged grief over the American killing of a storied Revolutionary Guard leader, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Now they were once again out en masse protesting their government.
Some protest images posted on Iranian social media even showed torn photos of Soleimani.
“Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” shouted Iranians gathered in squares in the capital Tehran, videos shared on social media showed. “You have no shame!” shouted several young men, and the crowd joined in a chorus.
In another tense spillover from the protests, Iranian authorities briefly seized Britain’s Tehran ambassador, Rob Macaire, for what news accounts in Iran called his “involvement in provoking suspicious acts” at a protest. Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, denounced the seizure as a “flagrant violation of international law.”
Many protesters carried candles and placed flowers at the gates of the universities and other public places in Tehran. Conservatives and supporters of the government accused the authorities of having intentionally misled the public about what had brought down the plane. Its passengers included many young Iranians on their way to Canada for graduate study.
Criticism directed at Iran’s leadership came from all factions inside the country. Even hard-line conservatives who exalt the military questioned its competence and what they called the deliberate decisions by senior military officials to misinform the public.
Hamideh Zarabadi, a member of Parliament from the conservative city of Qazvin, said Iran should hold a state funeral for the victims, prepare 176 coffins “and write on each of them, 80 million times, damn to war.”
Zarabadi’s comments were a slap at Khamenei and conservatives who had until Friday boasted about war with the U.S. and their plan for “maximum pressure” to avenge Soleimani’s death.
Mehdi Karroubi, a leader of the opposition Green Movement who has been under house arrest since 2011, issued a statement telling Khamenei that he no longer had the moral qualifications to be supreme leader.
And the editor-in-chief of the official Tasnim News Agency, Kian Abdollahi, said that lying to the public was as catastrophic as the plane tragedy and that all officials who lied must be prosecuted.
The criticism of Iran over the crash now threatens to eclipse whatever international sympathy Iran has garnered in its escalating confrontation with the Trump administration, which has faced widespread criticism over stoking a violent confrontation with Iran’s leaders.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an outspoken Iran critic who was among the first U.S. officials to accuse the country of shooting down the Ukrainian jetliner, posted a message on Twitter that clearly alluded to the outrage in Iran on Saturday.
“The voice of the Iranian people is clear,” Pompeo wrote. “They are fed up with the regime’s lies, corruption, ineptitude and brutality.”
Later Trump, in his own Twitter message, warned against what he called “another massacre” of protesters in Iran, an apparent reference to the deadly repression of demonstrators there in November.
“The world is watching,” he wrote.
The plane went down in fiery destruction just a few minutes after having departed Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport Wednesday morning, only hours after Iranian military forces had fired a barrage of missiles at bases in Iraq housing American troops in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani by a U.S. military drone in Baghdad on Jan. 3.
Iran’s aerial defense forces, worried about possible American reprisals for the missile attack, were on alert — even though commercial aviation in Iran was allowed to proceed normally.
For three days after the crash, Iranian officials not only denied their military forces were responsible but blamed what they called the aircraft’s mechanical problems and said suggestions of Iranian culpability were U.S. propaganda. Satellite surveillance and video clips of the plane strongly suggested Iran’s own air defense missile system blasted the plane out of the sky.
The Iranians reversed themselves early Saturday.
The newly critical language by Ukrainian officials in the aftermath of Iran’s admission stood in sharp contrast to more cautious statements in recent days. It partly reflected the frustrations in a country that had been thrust in the middle of the conflict between the United States and Iran.
Danilov, the Ukrainian security official, said Iran had been forced into conceding its military had brought down the jet because the evidence of a missile strike had become overwhelmingly clear to international investigators.
He said Ukrainian experts on the ground in Iran had gathered such evidence since their arrival on Thursday despite apparent Iranian efforts to complicate the investigation, including by sweeping debris into piles rather than carefully documenting it.
“When a catastrophe happens, everything is supposed to stay in its place,” he said. “Every element is described, every element is photographed, every element is fixed in terms of its location and coordinates. To our great regret, this was not done.”
Zelenskiy’s office posted on Facebook photos of plane wreckage and a Canadian man’s passport showing small piercings — consistent with the hypothesis that shrapnel from a surface-to-air missile hit the plane.
“We 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,” Zelenskiy said in a post on his Facebook page. “We hope that the investigation will continue without artificial delays and obstacles.”
Rouhani, in a statement cited by the Fars News Agency, offered condolences to the victims’ families and said that “the terrible catastrophe should be thoroughly investigated.”
The Iranian expressions of remorse were met with frustration by Ukrainian aviation officials who had been struggling since the crash to get meaningful information from Iran about what had actually happened.
“Even in the statement of Iran there is a hint that our crew was acting independently, or that it could have acted differently,” said the airline director, Yevhenii Dykhne.
The crew received no warning before leaving Tehran, Ukrainian officials said. The plane took off as Ukrainian flights from Iran had dozens of times before, and followed the same departure routes as other airliners leaving that morning, Ihor Sosnovsky, the vice president for flight operations, told journalists.
“There was no deviation from any routes that some are hinting at,” he said.
The crew maintained normal radio contact with the tower in Tehran, he said, and followed a standard departure procedure for the airport. After having reached an elevation of 6,000 feet, they were instructed to make a slight northerly turn. In the last communication, he said, one of the pilots read back this instruction from the tower, saying “turn and climb.”
Addressing criticism that the airline should not have sent a plane to Iran at all, in light of tensions in the region, the airline officials said it was Iran’s responsibility to close airspace if it had intended to fire missiles.
Danilov said Iran had no choice but to admit to shooting down the plane because the facts had become apparent to Ukrainian experts on the ground and to the international community.
The “cherry on top” in Ukraine’s probe, he said, came on Friday evening Iran time, when Ukrainian investigators found fragments of the top part of the airplane cabin that had been pierced by what appeared to be the shrapnel of a missile warhead.
“As we saw it, Iran had to face the reality that there’s no way they’ll get out of this,” Danilov said.
In the hours immediately after the crash, Danilov said, Iran was resistant to letting Ukraine conduct its own investigation. He said the possibility that international aviation authorities might shut down passenger flights to Tehran also placed enormous pressure on Iran.
“They said: ‘Sorry, this was a technical error, either due to the pilots or the technical condition of the airplane.’ We said: ‘Let us have a look.’ They said: ‘We won’t let you,’” Danilov said. “It took rather concerted efforts of our diplomats and our consul working there in order to make sure everything went well for our specialists.”
Zelenskiy spoke by phone to President Emmanuel Macron of France, and both agreed that French specialists would help decode the plane’s black box flight recorders.
Hajizadeh, the Iranian official who accepted responsibility for the missile strike, said the plane had been misidentified as a cruise missile and was shot down with a short-range missile that exploded near the plane.
Asked why Iranian airspace was not shut to commercial air traffic while Iran’s defense forces were on alert for attacks, Hajizadeh had no clear answer.
“I wish I was dead,” Hajizadeh was quoted as saying by local news outlets. “I accept all responsibility for this incident.”