After maintaining for days that there was no evidence that one of its missiles had struck a Boeing 737-800 minutes after it took off from Tehran on Wednesday with 176 people on board, Iran admitted early on Saturday that its military had shot down the passenger jet by mistake.
The military blamed human error. In a statement, it said Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 had taken a sharp, unexpected turn that brought it near a sensitive military base. Hours later, though, an Iranian official walked back that claim.
“The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly,” Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ airspace unit, said during a televised news conference later Saturday. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.”
In a post on Twitter, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, apologized but appeared to also blame American “adventurism” for the tragedy, writing: “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”
President Hassan Rouhani said on Twitter that Iran “deeply regrets this disastrous mistake.”
Media reports said the president offered condolences to the victims’ families and said that “the terrible catastrophe should be thoroughly investigated” and those responsible would be prosecuted.
But facing the possibility of American military strikes on Iran on Wednesday, Mr. Rouhani added, the armed forces made a “human mistake.”
“This painful incident is not something we can easily overcome,” he added, saying that was imperative to correct shortcomings in the country’s defense mechanisms.
Iranians vented fury toward their government after Tehran’s admission, with thousands pouring into main squares around the city Saturday afternoon. Gatherings organized on social media to mourn the victims of the crash swiftly turned into angry protests against the government’s actions.
“Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” people chanted, according to videos posted on social media. “You have no shame,” shouted several young men, as the crowd joined in a chorus, another video showed.
The country’s elite security force was not spared. At universities, crowds called the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps “incompetent” and “the people’s shame.”
But as protests spread throughout the capital and to other cities, the public’s anger seemed to find a one clear target: Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader and its commander in chief.
In Tehran, video posted to social media showed, protesters demanded that Mr. Khamenei resign, thrusting their fists in the air and screaming: “Khamenei is a murderer! His regime is obsolete!”
The protests turned violent in Tehran with anti-riot police using tear gas and opening water cannons at the crowd, videos showed.