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Iran’s Rohani calls for national unity after officials ‘lied’ about plane downing

Hassan Rohani (Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani has called for national unity amid continued protests in Iran over the downing of a Ukrainian passenger airliner by the country’s air defenses a week ago.

The call for calm, delivered in a televised speech during a cabinet meeting on January 15, came as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said at a conference in India that people have been demonstrating “against the fact that they were lied to for a couple of days.”

“The people want to make sure that the authorities treat them with sincerity, integrity, and trust,” Rohani said, calling on the armed forces to “apologize” and explain what exactly happened in the tragedy.

Flight PS752 was brought down after it took off from Tehran on January 8, killing all 176 people on board. Most of the victims were Iranian and Canadian nationals.

The crash occurred with Iran’s air-defense forces on high alert following an Iranian ballistic-missile attack a few hours earlier against U.S. forces in Iraq. The strikes came days after Iran’s most prominent military commander, Qasem Soleimani, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

Daily protests have been held in Iranian cities since January 11, after the country’s military admitted the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) Boeing 737-800 was shot down “unintentionally” by an antiaircraft missile.

“In the last few nights, we’ve had people in the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the fact that they were lied to for a couple of days,” Zarif said in the first comments by an Iranian official that referred to initial statements by authorities that vehemently denied the passenger jet was downed by missile fire.

The minister went on to praise Iran’s military for being “brave enough to claim responsibility early on.”

However, he claimed that he and Rohani only found out the truth concerning the cause of the disaster on January 10 — two days after the Ukrainian passenger plane was shot down.

Zarif also blamed U.S. “ignorance” and “arrogance” for “fueling mayhem” in the Middle East.

Rohani also lashed out at Europe in his speech for the triggering on January 14 of a dispute mechanism in a 2015 nuclear accord by Britain, France and Germany for Tehran’s non-compliance with terms of the deal.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Rohani said without elaborating.

Iran has gradually lifted all limits on its production of enriched uranium, which can be used to make reactor fuel but also nuclear weapons, in response to sanctions reinstated by the United States after it abandoned the nuclear agreement in May 2018.

On January 15, Rohani dismissed as “nonsense” allegations that the country is seeking to make nuclear weapons.

In an interview broadcast later in the day by CNBC, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Washington expected international sanctions to be swiftly reimposed on Iran.

“I’ve had very direct discussions — as well as Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo has — with our counterparts,” Mnuchin said.

“I think you saw the E3 did put out the statement and have activated the dispute resolution,” he said, referring to the so-called group of countries comprising France, Britain, and Germany. “And we look forward to working with them quickly and would expect that the UN sanctions will snap back into place.”

In Moscow, meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia was both disappointed and concerned over the move by European powers.

“It is politically erroneous and has serious implications for the prospect of preserving” the nuclear pact, Ryabkov said.

The crashed Ukrainian airliner was carrying 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, 10 Afghans, three Germans, and three Britons.

Ukraine says it has asked Iran to hand over the black box flight data recorders from the plane.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office said in a statement on January 15 it it would take “all measures” to properly decode the black boxes and “preserve evidence in the investigation of the accident.”

Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) is in charge of investigating the crash, it added.

Oleksandr Ruvin, director of the Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Science, earlier said the decoding of the black boxes would start on January 20.

Iranian civil-aviation specialists were expected to arrive in the Ukrainian capital on January 15 to participate in the effort, Ruvin told Ukrainian media.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on January 14 asked for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s “assistance in dialogue with the Iranian authorities as regards the identification of the bodies of the victims, including Canadian citizens,” the presidential office said.

In a televised speech on January 14, Rohani called for a special court to be set up to investigate the downing of the plane and said that all those responsible for the “unforgivable error” must be “punished.”

Meanwhile, Iran’s judiciary announced on January 14 the first arrests made over the air disaster, without naming them or specifying how many.

It also said that around 30 people had been arrested in the protests over the air disaster as thousands of protesters took to the streets in Tehran and several other cities to vent their anger with the clerical establishment over the incident.

Iranian social media postings urged Iranians to take to the streets for a fifth day on January 15.

Amirali Hajizadeh, the head of the aerospace division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has said that his unit accepts “full responsibility” for the tragedy.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed his “deep sympathy” to the families of the 176 victims and called on the armed forces to “pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident.”