DUBAI (Reuters) – Protesters denouncing Iran’s clerical rulers took to the streets and riot police deployed to face them on Monday, in a third day of demonstrations after authorities acknowledged shooting down a passenger plane by accident.
Demonstrations in Iran, some met by a violent crackdown, are the latest twist in one of the most serious escalations between Washington and Tehran since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Video showed students on Monday chanting slogans including “Clerics get lost!” outside universities in the city of Isfahan and in Tehran, where riot police were filmed taking positions on the streets.
Images from the previous two days of protests showed wounded people being carried and pools of blood on the ground. Gunshots could be heard, although the police denied opening fire.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who raised the stakes last week by ordering a drone strike that killed Iran’s most powerful military commander, tweeted to Iran’s leaders: “don’t kill your protesters.”
Tehran has acknowledged shooting down the Ukrainian jetliner by mistake on Wednesday, killing all 176 people aboard, hours after firing at U.S. targets in Iraq to retaliate for the killing on Jan. 3 of General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
Iranian public anger, rumbling for days as Iran repeatedly denied it was to blame for the plane crash, erupted into protests on Saturday when the military admitted its role.
A full picture of protests inside Iran is difficult to obtain because of restrictions on independent media. But videos uploaded to the internet showed scores, possibly hundreds, of protesters on Monday at sites in Tehran and Isfahan, a major city south of the capital.
“They killed our elites and replaced them with clerics,” they chanted outside a Tehran university, referring to Iranian students returning to studies in Canada who were on the plane.
‘DON’T BEAT THEM’
Videos posted late on Sunday recorded the gunfire around protests in Tehran’s Azadi Square. Wounded were being carried and men who seemed to be security personnel ran as they gripped rifles. Riot police hit protesters with batons as people shouted “Don’t beat them!”
“Death to the dictator,” other footage showed protesters shouting, directing their fury directly at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader since 1989.
Reuters could not immediately verify the footage. State-affiliated media has reported the protests in Tehran and other cities but without all the details from the uploaded videos.
“At protests, police absolutely did not shoot because the capital’s police officers have been given orders to show restraint,” Tehran police chief Hossein Rahimi said in a statement on state media.
Tehran’s showdown with Washington has come at a precarious time for the authorities in Iran and the proxy forces they support to wield influence across the Middle East. Sanctions imposed by Trump have hammered the Iranian economy.
Iran’s authorities killed hundreds of protesters in November in what appears to have been the bloodiest crackdown on anti-government unrest since 1979. In Iraq and Lebanon, governments backed by pro-Iran armed groups have also faced mass protests.
The deaths of the passengers, including many Iranians, some with dual citizenship, adds trauma to a nation still raw from the deaths in November’s unrest, when police fired on protesters who torched shops, petrol stations and banks.
Soleimani’s killing led to days of mourning and public shows of solidarity with the authorities, but even that turned bloody, with at least 56 people trampled to death at his funeral.
Five nations whose citizens died in the crash will meet in London on Thursday to discuss possible legal action, Ukraine’s foreign minister told Reuters.
Trump tweeted that he “couldn’t care less if (the Iranians) negotiate. Will be totally up to them but, no nuclear weapons and ‘don’t kill your protesters’.”
Iran’s government spokesman dismissed Trump’s comments, saying Iranians were suffering because of his actions and they would remember he had ordered the killing of Soleimani.
In another tweet, Trump said “The wonderful Iranian protesters refused to step on, or in any way denigrate, our Great American Flag”, a reference to footage showing students standing around rather than on a U.S. flag painted on the ground so that people would walk on it.
Trump precipitated an escalation with Iran in 2018 by pulling out of a deal under which sanctions were eased in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program.
Trump says he wants a more stringent pact. Iran says it will not negotiate as long as U.S. sanctions are in place.
The recent flare-up began in December when rockets fired at U.S. bases in Iraq killed a U.S. contractor. Washington blamed pro-Iran militia and launched air strikes that killed at least 25 fighters. After the militia surrounded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad for two days, Trump ordered the strike on Soleimani.
Iran retaliated on Wednesday by firing missiles at Iraqi bases where U.S. troops were stationed, without hurting any Americans. The Ukrainian plane crashed shortly after.
Iran’s president called the downing of the plane a “disastrous mistake”. A top commander said he had told the authorities on the day of the crash it had been shot down, raising questions about why Iran had initially denied it.
Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff