Blood was splattered on the streets of central Tehran late Sunday after pro-regime gunmen prowling the capital allegedly opened fire on anti-government protesters enraged over the downing of a passenger jet by nervous authorities.
The allegations of violence came as protests got under way for a third day in the capital and other cities following the Iranian regime’s startling admission on Saturday that it launched the missiles that downed Ukraine Airlines flight 752, killing all 176 aboard.
The destruction of the flight and the deaths of the mostly Iranian passengers have infuriated citizens across the political spectrum, many angry about the days of denial and obfuscation by senior military and government officials following the crash.
Many of those killed in the crash were young graduates of Iran’s most elite and prestigious educational institutions, heading back to promising jobs or research slots in the west following winter holidays with relatives. Profound grief rippled across the country.
“Oh! Oh! They killed Amir-Hossein! They killed Amir-Hossein!” the relatives of one plane crash victim screamed in despair in one Tehran neighbourhood, in a video posted online.
Video posted on Monday showed students, many under pressure to keep up with studies during exam time, gathering at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, demanding answers and accountability.
“They killed our elites, and they replaced them with mullahs,” they chanted.
“Resignation is not enough,” one of the protest leaders told The Independent. “We want prosecutions.”
The night before, pandemonium erupted in parts of central Tehran as protesters sought to seize control of Azadi Square, where only a week before mourners had commemorated Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani.
It was his assassination in a US drone strike in Iraq, subsequent Iranian retaliation, and fears of US counterattack that prompted edgy Revolutionary Guard commanders to mistake the Ukraine Airlines Boeing 737 lumbering out of Tehran’s international airport on a routine flight path for an incoming US missile.
The downing of the jet shattered a rare moment of national unity in Iran, and reignited longstanding grievances that have resulted in on-and-off protests since late 2017.
The disaster has prompted Iran’s sole female Olympic gold-medal winner to defect to the west, a leading news anchor to resign and apologise for “lying to [Iranians] for 13 years,” and a major newspaper, Entekhab, to call for the resignation of Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.
In response, Iranian authorities appeared poised for a crackdown. The Council of Guardians, a body of ultra-conservative jurists who vet candidates for national office, announced that it had disqualified 90 sitting reformist lawmakers from running for office in 21 February elections citing “economic corruption, moral corruption, and contradicting the ruling establishment”.
Though they have yet to cut off the internet, as they did during November protests, Iranian censors blocked Entekhab, after it called for Mr Shamkhani’s departure. On the streets, they have deployed thousands of uniformed and plainclothes enforcers.
Video posted to the internet and distributed via the Telegram messaging app showed black-helmeted riot police beating protesters with batons near on a commercial street late Sunday.
“Don’t hit her! Don’t hit her!” a woman is heard yelling as a security enforcer in riot gear pummels a young couple.
In another clip, protesters crowd around what appears to be a bleeding protester, splotches of blood on a nearby pavement.
Other video showed gun-wielding regime militiamen, likely members of shadowy factions loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, wielding assault rifles and scouring the streets in search of protesters. Witnesses said at least two people were shot and in unknown condition, even as the police denied using lethal force.
“The police did not fire shots during yesterday’s and today’s rallies ,” the newspaper Hamshahri, associated with the mayoralty of Tehran, quoted Brig-Gen Hossein Rahimi as saying.
Mr Rahimi claimed police had dealt with protesters “with restraint”. But he made no reference the often masked militiamen who serve as the regime’s shock troops.
Earlier on Sunday, pro-regime voices on television and on campuses warned that any violence would be the fault of peaceful protesters rather than the unaccountable pro-regime enforcers that often perpetrate violence.
In London, the Iranian ambassador was summoned to a meeting at the Foreign Office following the arrest of the UK’s top diplomat in Tehran on Saturday.
Rob Macaire, the UK’s ambassador to Iran, was detained for three hours by police over his “illegal and inappropriate” presence at a vigil for those killed in the downing of an Ukrainian plane, which had descended into protests.
Hamid Baeidinejad attended a meeting at the Foreign Office on Monday afternoon at which ministers conveyed their “strong objections” to the incident, which the UK claims breaches the Vienna Convention which governs diplomatic relations.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said the UK had demanded an apology for the “flagrant violation” of international law and said the security measures at the embassy in Tehran were being kept under review.
“The regime in Tehran is at a crossroads,” Mr Raab told MPs.
“It can slip further and further into political and economic isolation. But there is an alternative and the regime does have a choice: the diplomatic door remains open, now is the time for Iran to engage in diplomacy and chart a peaceful way forwards.”