KYIV — 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 in the capital Kyiv 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.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, in his first reaction to Iran’s announcement, said his country would “insist on a full admission of guilt” by Tehran.
Contradictions and miscues complicated Iran’s message even as it took responsibility for the disaster. 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 for the disaster 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, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who leads the airspace unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.”
The Ukrainians further accused Iran of having recklessly permitted commercial flights during a security emergency and of having violated universally accepted procedures for a post-crash investigation. Bulldozers had heaped debris from the plane into piles.
“Everything was done absolutely inappropriately,” Oleksiy Danilov, the Ukrainian security official overseeing the crash inquiry, said in an interview, referring to how Iranian authorities had handled the crash site.
Within Iran, citizens vented anger toward their government after the admission and President Hassan Rouhani called the error an “unforgivable mistake.” Hajizadeh, whose forces were responsible, said he had wished death upon himself.
Iranians who only a few days earlier were united in outraged grief over the US killing of a storied Revolutionary Guard leader, Major General Qassem Soleimani, were once again protesting their government.
Conservatives and supporters of the government accused the authorities of having intentionally misled the public initially. The plane’s passengers included many young Iranians on their way to Canada for graduate study.
The criticism of Iran over the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, a Boeing 737-800, now threatens to eclipse whatever international sympathy Iran has garnered in its escalating confrontation with the Trump administration.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an outspoken Iran critic who was among the first US officials to accuse the country of shooting down the Ukrainian jetliner, posted a message on Twitter that clearly alluded to the outrage in Iran on Saturday.
“The voice of the Iranian people is clear,” Pompeo. “They are fed up with the regime’s lies, corruption, ineptitude and brutality.”
The plane went down just a few minutes after having departed Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport Wednesday morning, only hours after Iranian military forces had fired a barrage of missiles at bases in Iraq housing American troops in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani by a US military drone in Baghdad on Jan. 3.
Iran’s aerial defense forces, worried about possible American reprisals for the missile attack, were on alert — even though commercial aviation was allowed to proceed.
For three days after the crash, Iranian officials not only denied their military forces were responsible but blamed what they called the aircraft’s mechanical problems and said suggestions of Iranian culpability were US propaganda. Satellite surveillance and video clips of the plane strongly suggested Iran’s own air defense missile system blasted the plane out of the sky.
The Iranians reversed themselves early Saturday.
The newly critical language by Ukrainian officials in the aftermath of Iran’s admission stood in sharp contrast to more cautious statements in recent days. It partly reflected the frustrations in a country that had been thrust in the middle of the conflict between the United States and Iran.
Danilov said Iran had been forced into conceding because the evidence of a missile strike had become overwhelmingly clear to international investigators.
He said Ukrainian experts in Iran had gathered such evidence despite apparent Iranian efforts to complicate the investigation, including by sweeping debris into piles rather than carefully documenting it.
“When a catastrophe happens, everything is supposed to stay in its place,” he said. “Every element is described, every element is photographed, every element is fixed in terms of its location and coordinates. To our great regret, this was not done.”
Zelenskiy’s office posted on Facebook photos of what appeared to be shrapnel damage on the plane wreckage and a Canadian man’s passport showing piercings about half an inch in diameter — consistent with the hypothesis that shrapnel from a missile hit the plane.
“We expect Iran to assure its readiness for a full and open investigation, to bring those responsible to justice, to return the bodies of the victims, to pay compensation, and to make official apologies through diplomatic channels,” Zelenskiy said in a post on his Facebook page. “We hope that the investigation will continue without artificial delays and obstacles.”
The official reaction from Iran was a mix of contrition and suggestions that the tragedy should be viewed as a consequence of US hostility.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wrote that “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”
Rouhani, in a statement cited by the Fars News Agency, offered condolences to the victims’ families and said that “the terrible catastrophe should be thoroughly investigated.”
The Iranian expressions of remorse were met with frustration by Ukrainian aviation officials who had been struggling since the crash to get meaningful information from Iran about what had actually happened.
“Even in the statement of Iran there is a hint that our crew was acting independently, or that it could have acted differently,” said the airline director, Yevhenii Dykhne.
The crew received no warning before leaving Tehran, the Ukrainian officials said. The plane followed the same departure routes as other airliners leaving that morning, Ihor Sosnovsky, the vice president for flight operations, told journalists.
“There was no deviation from any routes that some are hinting at,” he said.
Hajizadeh, the Iranian official who accepted responsibility, said the plane had been misidentified as a cruise missile and was shot down with a short-range missile that exploded near the plane.