Riot police have been deployed in parts of Tehran after tear gas was used to clear the streets of protesters angry at the government’s admission it had mistakenly shot down a passenger jet killing all 176 people on board.
Images of dozens of demonstrators taking to the streets in the capital and other cities including Isfahan were circulating on social media as activists called for mass mourning rallies, raising the possibility of fresh clashes between protesters and security forces.
Pro-regime protesters also gathered outside the UK embassy calling for its closure after the British ambassador to Iran was briefly detained on Saturday evening after leaving the site of a demonstration.
Several Iranian media outlets on Sunday joined a chorus of domestic and international criticism at both the shooting down of the airliner on Wednesday morning and the subsequent days of official denials that an Iranian missile was responsible.
Footage from the Iranian capital showed police in riot gear and on motorcycles massed in public squares and lining the entrances to the University of Tehran, one of the sites where hundreds turned out for protests on Saturday night chanting for prosecutions and a referendum on the country’s theocratic system.
A clip purportedly shot on Sunday morning at Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran showed a small group of students chanting slogans against the country’s state-run media outlets. Its authenticity could not be immediately verified.
“They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here,” said protesters outside a university in Tehran in another clip cited by Reuters. Mourning events were held at several universities across the city.
Student protests are not unusual in Iran but these latest come at a period of extraordinary tumult for the Islamic Republic, with an economy suffocated by US sanctions, the largest protests in the regime’s history put down by violent force in November, and the revelation that the country’s armed forces shot down a jet loaded with Iranian citizens – then lied about it.
The rage at the incident appears to have wiped away the nationalist wave the regime was attempting to ride after the killing of General Qassem Suleimani by a US drone strike nine days ago, and the catharsis it sought to deliver with a heavily publicised ballistic missile attack on US forces stationed in Iraq.
Iran’s foreign ministry on Sunday summoned the UK ambassador to Tehran, Rob Macaire, to explain what he was doing near the site of a protest when he was arrested the previous evening.
Macaire, who was released shortly after Iranian diplomatic officials learned of his arrest, tweeted that he had attended what was advertised as a vigil, left as it began to turn into a protest and was detained half-an-hour later. The Tasnim news agency, which is linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, reported on Sunday that Macaire had been using a shop near the protests as a place of “coordination”.
The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, condemned the ambassador’s arrestas a “flagrant violation of international law” and said Iran was marching towards “pariah status”.
In a series of tweets in English and Farsi, the US president Donald Trump said he was monitoring demonstrations in the country and voiced his support – sentiments that analysts have said are unlikely to win the protesters favours.
“To the brave, long-suffering people of Iran: I’ve stood with you since the beginning of my Presidency, and my Administration will continue to stand with you,” he tweeted. “There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching.”
After days of denials, Iranian officials on Saturday morning admitted to shooting down the Ukrain International Airlines jet, a few hours after firing missiles at US forces stationed in Iraq and while the country’s air defences were on high alert for reprisals.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake. My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families,” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said.
After the missile operation in Iraq, US military flights around Iranian borders increased and Iranian military officials reported seeing aerial targets coming toward strategic centres, a statement by Iranian armed forces headquarters said.
“The aircraft came close to a sensitive IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] military centre at an altitude and flight condition that resembled hostile targeting,” the statement said. “Under these circumstances, the aircraft was unintentionally hit, which unfortunately resulted in the death of many Iranian and foreign nationals.”
The victims include 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three British nationals.