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Iran plane crash: arrests, lies and the limits of civilian government power

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FILE - In this file photo taken on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, showing the actual Ukrainian Boeing 737-800 UR-PSR plane that crashed Wednesday Jan. 8, 2020
FILE - In this file photo taken on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, showing the actual Ukrainian Boeing 737-800 UR-PSR plane that crashed Wednesday Jan. 8, 2020   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Oleksandr Naumenko   -   Oleksandr Naumenko
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Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledged on Wednesday that Iranians “were lied to'' for days following the Islamic Republic accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner, killing 176 people.

The comments by the Iranian foreign minister in New Delhi represent the first time an Iranian official referred to the earlier story that a technical malfunction downed the Ukraine International Airlines flight as a lie.

Meanwhile, President Hassan Rouhani's remarks in a televised Cabinet meeting represent the first direct threat he has 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.

The shootdown has sparked days of angry protests in the country.

“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 President Hassan 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 afterwards that its missile downed the airline.

Arrests

Iran's judiciary said on Tuesday that arrests have been made over the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane that killed all 176 people on board just after takeoff from Tehran.

The announcement came shortly after Iran's president called for a special court to be set up to probe last week's incident.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili was quoted by Iranian state media saying that investigations have taken place and some individuals have been arrested. He did not say how many individuals have been detained or name them.

Iran, which initially dismissed allegations that a missile had brought down the jetliner, acknowledged - three days after Wednesday's downing and in the face of mounting evidence - that its Revolutionary Guard had shot down the Ukrainian plane by mistake.

President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech televised in Iran on Tuesday that this is "not an ordinary case. The entire the world will be watching this court.''

Rouhani called the incident a ``"painful and unforgivable'' mistake and promised that his administration would pursue the case ``by all means.''

``The responsibility falls on more than just one person,`` "he said, adding that those found culpable ``"should be punished.''

``There are others, too, and I want that this issue is expressed honestly,'' he said, without elaborating.

Rouhani called the government's admission that Iranian forces shot down the plane the ``first good step''.

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 - including many Iranians with dual citizenship - and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. There were several children among the passengers, including an infant.

Iran shot down the plane when it was bracing for possible U.S. retaliation for a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. No one was hurt in that attack, which was carried out to avenge the stunning killing of Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad.

The shootdown and the lack of transparency around it has reignited anger in Iran at the country's leadership, with protesters taking to the streets in past days. Online videos appeared to show security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protests in the streets.