Iran's president warned Wednesday that European soldiers in the Mideast "could be in danger" after three nations challenged Tehran over breaking the limits of its nuclear deal. Tehran's top diplomat meanwhile acknowledged that Iranians "were lied to" for days following the Islamic Republic's accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian jetliner that killed 176 people.
President Hassan Rouhani's remarks in a televised Cabinet meeting represent the first direct threat he's made to Europe as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington over President Donald Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the deal in May 2018.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's admission, which came at a summit in New Delhi on Wednesday, represents the first time an Iranian official referred to earlier claims from Tehran that a technical malfunction downed the Ukraine International Airlines flight as a lie. The shootdown has sparked days of angry protests in the country.
The current tensions between Iran and the U.S. reached fever-pitch two weeks ago with the American drone strike in Baghdad that killed the powerful Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The general had led Iranian proxy forces abroad, including those blame for deadly roadside bomb attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile strike targeting Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces early last Wednesday, just before an anti-aircraft battery shot down the Ukrainian airliner taking off from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Amid all of this, Britain, France and Germany launched the so-called "dispute mechanism" pertaining to Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Speaking before his Cabinet, Rouhani showed a rarely seen level of anger in his wide-ranging remarks Wednesday.
"Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger," Rouhani said. He did not elaborate, though European forces have deployed alongside Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. France also maintains a naval base in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, while Britian has opened a base in the island nation of Bahrain.
Rouhani separately criticized Europe's "baseless" words regarding the nuclear deal. Iran had been holding out for Europe to offer a means by which Tehran could sell its oil abroad despite U.S. sanctions. However, a hoped-for trading mechanism for other goods hasn't taken hold and a French-pitched line of credit also hasn't materialized.
After Soleimani's killing, Iran announced it would no longer abide by any of the nuclear deal's limits, which had been designed to keep Tehran from having enough material to be able to build an atomic bomb if it chose. However, Iran has said it will continue to allow the United Nations' nuclear watchdog access to its nuclear sites. Rouhani on Wednesday also reiterated a longtime Iranian pledge that Tehran doesn't seek the bomb.
The European nations reluctantly triggered the accord's dispute mechanism on Tuesday to force Iran into discussions, starting the clock on a process that could result in the "snapback" of U.N. and EU sanctions on Iran.
The Europeans felt compelled to act, despite objections from Russia and China, because every violation of the deal reduces the so-called "breakout time" Iran needs to produce a nuclear bomb, Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told parliament. Under the deal's limits, experts believed Iran needed a year to be able to have enough material for a weapon.
Zarif, speaking in New Delhi at the Raisina Dialogue, blamed U.S. "ignorance" and "arrogance" for "fueling mayhem" in the Middle East. However, he also acknowledged the anger Iranians felt over the plane shootdown.
"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.
Zarif went onto praise Iran's military for being "brave enough to claim responsibility early on."
However, he said that he and Rouhani only learned that a missile had down the flight on Friday, raising new questions over how much power Iran's civilian government has in its Shiite theocracy. Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which shot down the aircraft, knew immediately afterward its missile downed the airline.
The Guard is answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is expected to preside over Friday prayers in Iran for the first time in years over anger about the crash.
But there was a sense that the chance for immediate further retaliation by Iran against the U.S. may have lifted. Hossein Salami, the head of the Guard, said in a speech that Iran's "war project was closed since the people stood" against American pressure.
"Now, we are moving toward peace," Salami said.
Later Wednesday, Iranian state media said the British ambassador to Iran, Robert Macaire, had left the country. Macaire left after being given what the state-run IRNA news agency described as "prior notice," without elaborating. Britain's Foreign Office insisted Macaire's trip to London was "routine, business as usual" and was planned before his arrest in Tehran. It said he planned return to Iran.
Macaire had been held after attending a candlelight vigil Saturday in Tehran over Iran shooting down the Ukrainian jetliner. The vigil quickly turned into an anti-government protests and Macaire left shortly after, only to be arrested by police.
Popular anger swelled Monday in Iran over the accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian jetliner and the government's attempt to conceal its role in the tragedy, as online videos appeared to show security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protests in the streets.
Iranians, already suffering under crippling U.S. sanctions, expressed shock and outrage over the plane crash that killed scores of young people. They also decried the misleading statements from top officials, who only admitted responsibility three days later in the face of mounting evidence.
The country began last week engulfed in mourning after a U.S. drone strike killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led Iran's regional military interventions. Then on Jan. 8, it responded with a ballistic missile attack on two bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq, although there were no casualties. Hours after that barrage, as it braced for a U.S. counterattack that never came, Iranian forces accidentally shot down the Ukraine International Airlines jetliner, killing all 176 people aboard shortly after it took off from Tehran for Kyiv.
For a growing number of critics — from ordinary citizens to notable athletes and artists — the events have revealed a government that is incapable of following through on its incendiary rhetoric and willing to mislead its own people about a national tragedy in order to avoid embarrassment.
Those sentiments first boiled over late Saturday, shortly after the Revolutionary Guard admitted to shooting the plane down by mistake. A candlelight vigil at a university rapidly turned into an anti-government demonstration.
"They are lying that our enemy is America! Our enemy is right here!" students shouted.
On Sunday night, protesters massed in Tehran's Azadi, or Freedom, Square.
Videos sent to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran and later verified by The Associated Press show a crowd of demonstrators near Azadi Square fleeing as a tear gas canister lands among them. People cough and sputter while trying to escape the fumes, with one woman calling out in Farsi: "They fired tear gas at people! Azadi Square! Death to the dictator!"
Another video shows a woman being carried away in the aftermath of the violence, a trail of blood visible on the ground. Those around her cry out that she has been shot in the leg.
"Oh my God, she's bleeding nonstop!" one person shouts. Another shouts: "Bandage it!"
Photos and video after the incident show pools of blood on the sidewalk.
Tehran's police chief, Gen. Hossein Rahimi, later denied that his officers opened fire.
"Police treated people who had gathered with patience and tolerance," Iranian media quoted Rahimi as saying. "Police did not shoot in the gatherings since broad-mindedness and restraint has been the agenda of the police forces of the capital."
The semi-official Fars news agency reported that police had "shot tear gas in some areas."
Fars, which is close to the Revolutionary Guard, carried videos purportedly shot Sunday night showing demonstrators chanting: "We are children of war. Fight with us, we will fight back." Another Fars video showed demonstrators in Tehran tearing down a poster of Soleimani.
On Sunday, authorities deployed forces across Tehran — police, members of the Revolutionary Guard on motorcycles and plainclothes security men. The heavy security presence continued into Monday, when protests were largely confined to universities and there were no reports of clashes.
President Donald Trump has openly encouraged the demonstrators, even tweeting messages of support in Farsi and warning the government not to fire on them. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted that "we are following the protests in Tehran very attentively," adding that Iranians "have a right to free expression without repression and persecution."
But earlier, larger waves of protests going back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution have been crushed by security forces. Amnesty International says more than 300 people were killed in November during days of protests sparked by an increase in gasoline prices.
Most of the people aboard the Ukraine International Airlines jet were Iranians and Iranian-Canadians. For three days, Iranian officials ruled out any attack on the plane, suggesting the crash of Flight 752 was caused by a technical failure. Only on Saturday did authorities acknowledge shooting it down, as evidence mounted and after Western leaders accused Iran of culpability.
Several activists in Ukraine rallied in front of the Iranian Embassy in Kyiv on Monday, expressing solidarity with protesters and condemning Iran's "dictatorship."
The European Union's aviation agency has since advised carriers against overflight of Iran "at all altitudes" until further notice. Several airlines have already canceled flights to and from Iran and rerouted flights to avoid Iranian airspace.
Ali Rabiei, a government spokesman, insisted Iran's civilian officials learned only on Friday that the Revolutionary Guard had shot down the plane. The Guard answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"The point is that we did not lie," Rabiei said. He went on to blame the U.S. for "spreading the shadow of war over Iran."
Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran's judiciary, issued a warning to protesters, saying "the agents of America and agents of foreign countries" want to use anger over Flight 752 to "compromise" Iran's security. Iran often blames anti-government protests on foreign conspiracies.
On Saturday, Iranian authorities briefly arrested British Ambassador Rob Macaire, who said he went to the candlelight vigil to pay his respects and left as soon as the chanting began.
Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador Sunday to protest what it said was his presence at an illegal protest. Britain, in turn, summoned Iran's ambassador on Monday "to convey our strong objections" over the weekend arrest.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman, James Slack, said the envoy's detention was "an unacceptable breach of the Vienna Convention."
"We are seeking full assurances from the Iranian government that it will never happen again," he said.
In addition to the street protests, Iran's government has also faced harsh criticism from prominent artists, athletes and journalists.
A number of artists, including famed director Masoud Kimiai, withdrew from an upcoming international film festival. Two state TV hosts resigned in protest over the false reporting about what happened to Flight 752.
Taraneh Alidoosti, one of Iran's most famous actresses, posted a picture of a black square on Instagram with the caption: "We are not citizens. We are hostages. Millions of hostages."
Saeed Maroof, the captain of Iran's national volleyball team, also wrote on Instagram: "I wish I could be hopeful that this was the last scene of the show of deceit and lack of wisdom of these incompetents but I still know it is not."
He said that despite Iran's national team qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after years of effort, "there is no energy left in our sad and desperate souls to celebrate."
Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved the formation of a committee to consider Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's request for legal immunity, a major setback for the embattled leader who is seeking to fend off corruption charges.
Netanyahu was charged in November with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three cases involving trading political and regulatory favors for positive news coverage, and accepting gifts from billionaire friends.
Netanyahu's opponents make up a majority in the current caretaker parliament, and his request for immunity is expected to be rejected. Netanyahu has tried to delay the vote on immunity until after March 2 elections, when he hopes a more sympathetic slate of lawmakers will be chosen.
The prime minister, Israel's longest serving, has denied any wrongdoing. He called the charges against him an "attempted coup" by law enforcement. Nonetheless, earlier this month Netanyahu formally asked parliament for immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu's Likud party has tried to delay the immunity proceedings through a series of legal challenges and personal attacks on legal officials. But on Sunday, the parliament's legal adviser ruled that there were no grounds for preventing the formation of the committee that deals with immunity requests.
On Monday, lawmakers voted in favor of forming the House Committee, which is to rule on the immunity request.
Court proceedings in Netanyahu's corruption cases cannot begin until the Knesset, Israel's parliament, settles the prime minister's immunity request. If the committee, as expected, rejects his request, he would be forced to seek re-election with the cloud of a trial looming over him.
Israeli Cabinet members must resign if indicted, but the prime minister is not explicitly required to do so.
Netanyahu, who has been led the government for 11 years, has served as caretaker prime minister for the past year after twice failing to form a coalition after elections in April and September.
Israel is now heading into an unprecedented third election in under a year. The March vote is widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu's ability to serve.
Oman announced Saturday culture minister Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as the new ruler of the Gulf Arab country, ending speculation over the mystery of who would succeed longtime ruler Sultan Qaboos.
The announcement came as Omanis lined the streets of the capital, Muscat, to catch a glimpse of the motorcade carrying the body of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who died hours earlier at the age of 79.
Qaboos, the Middle East's longest-ruling monarch, seized power in a 1970 palace coup. He was known internationally for his diplomatic balancing in the Persian Gulf. Under his leadership, Oman often served as a facilitator of talks between adversaries, including Iran and the U.S.
Thousands gathered at the Sultan Qaboos Mosque where funeral prayers were held before noon Saturday. The mosque is an architecturally stunning complex of white marble and manicured gardens that reflects how the sultan modernized his country without eschewing its cultural heritage or building towering skyscrapers like other neighboring Gulf capitals.
Soldiers stood guard along the streets and troops stood in machine gun nests atop SUVs as citizens and residents of Oman gathered along a highway in Muscat to see the motorcade carrying the sultan's body for burial.
Oman state TV said authorities had opened a letter by Sultan Qaboos bin Said naming his successor, without elaborating. State TV then announced shortly after that Haitham bin Tariq Al Said is the country's ruling sultan, which suggests he was Qaboos' choice.
Oman's Defense Council had earlier said it met with the Royal Family Council, inviting its members to select a successor.
According to Oman's succession laws, if the family council cannot agree on a successor the country's authorities are to unseal a letter written by Sultan Qaboos containing his choice for successor from among his family. Sultan Qaboos had no children.
Al Said, who was serving as the Minister of National Heritage and Culture, often played an important diplomatic role. He represented Oman abroad and welcomed Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, for example, upon their arrival to the country for a visit in 2016.
Prior to his role as culture minister, he'd served as undersecretary of the ministry of foreign affairs for political affairs and the secretary general for the ministry of foreign affairs. He has sometimes also chaired meetings of the Cabinet.
This experience "was considered to have provided him with the necessary political gravitas and foreign policy expertise to help steer Oman into a post-Qaboos era," said Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East expert, in an analysis for The Arab Gulf States Institution in Washington.
The Al Said family has ruled Oman since the eighteenth century.
A top diplomat in the United Arab Emirates described Qaboos as a "wise and inspiring leader" and extended his country's sincere condolences to the people of Oman.
"Today we lost a historic and renaissance figure of high class with the death of Sultan Qaboos," UAE's Minister of State or Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter.
In the United States, former President George W. Bush issued a statement saying that he and former first lady Laura Bush are saddened by the sultan's death.
"He was a stable force in the Middle East and a strong U.S. ally. His Majesty had a vision for a modern, prosperous, and peaceful Oman, and he willed that vision into reality," Bush said, adding that he and his wife visited him in Muscat last fall.
Iran's supreme leader has offered condolences and called for an investigation after his country's armed forces acknowledged that they accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday 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."
Iran shot down the passenger plane after it took off from Tehran, amid heightened tensions stemming from the U.S. airstrike that killed Iran's top general. The military says it mistook the plane for a hostile target after launching a ballistic missile attack on two bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iran on Saturday acknowledged that its armed forces "unintentionally" shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.
The plane was shot down early Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad. No one was wounded in the attack on the bases.
A military statement carried by state media said the plane was mistaken for a "hostile target" after it turned toward a "sensitive military center" of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its "highest level of readiness," it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States.
"In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit," the military said. It apologized and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies.
Those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted, the statement added.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy issued a statement saying the crash investigation should continue and the "perpetrators" should be brought to justice. He said Iran should compensate victims' families, and he requested "official apologies through diplomatic channels."
It was unclear whether the plane was shot down by Iran's conventional forces or the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran's acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders in the wake of Soleimani's killing. Soleimani, the leader of the Guard's elite Quds Force and the architect of Iran's regional military interventions, was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians had turned out for funeral processions across the country.
The majority of the plane crash victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians. Iranian officials had repeatedly ruled out a missile strike, dismissing such allegations as Western propaganda that officials said was offensive to the victims.
The crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices. Iran has been in the grip of a severe economic crisis since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani blamed the shootdown of the plane in part on "threats and bullying" by the United States after the killing of Soleimani. He expressed condolences to families of the victims, and he called for a "full investigation" and the prosecution of those responsible.
"A sad day," Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. "Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster. Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations."
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
The U.S. and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos verified by The Associated Press.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lowered the nation's death toll from 63.
"This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission," said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash.
"I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face."
Iran's acknowledgement of responsibility was likely to renew questions of why authorities did not shut down the country's main international airport and its airspace after the ballistic missile attack, when they feared U.S. reprisals.
It also undermines the credibility of information provided by senior Iranian officials. As recently as Friday, Ali Abedzadeh, the head of the national aviation department, had told reporters "with certainty" that a missile had not caused the crash.
On Thursday, Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei dismissed reports of a missile, saying they "rub salt on a painful wound" for families of the victims.
Iran had also invited Ukraine, Canada, the United States and France to take part in the investigation of the crash, in keeping with international norms. The Boeing 737 was built in the United States and the engine was built by a U.S.-French consortium.
Ukraine's president said its team of investigators, who are already on the ground in Iran, should continue their work with "full access and cooperation."
The military statement, issued by the Joint Chiefs of the Armed Forces, said Guard officials had been ordered to "provide a detailed explanation" to the public.
The semi-official Fars news agency reported that the supreme leader on Friday morning had ordered top security officials to review the crash and announce the results.
Fars, which is close to the Guard, appeared to deflect blame.
"If some individuals, in any position, were aware of the issue but made statements contradicting the reality or hid the truth for any reason, they should be named and tried," it said.
Others speculated that the security forces may have concealed information from civilian authorities.
"Concealing the truth from the administration is dreadful," Mohammad Fazeli, a sociology professor in Tehran, wrote on social media. "If it had not been concealed, the head of civil aviation and the government spokesmen would not have persistently denied it."
"Concealing the truth for three days is dangerous," he added.