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.
Mr. Khamenei said he had ordered subordinates to be honest about Iran’s responsibility for the disaster. Both he and President Hassan Rouhani said they had not learned the true cause until an internal military investigation was completed on Friday. But that assertion raised new questions about how the two top leaders in the hierarchy — Mr. Khamenei is the commander in chief — could not have known.
President Volodymyr Zelensky 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 Mr. 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 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 the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — 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 recklessly permitting commercial flights during a security emergency and of violating universally accepted procedures for a post-crash investigation. Bulldozers had heaped debris from the plane into piles on the ground.