Iran calls for UK ambassador to be expelled as arrests made over plane crash protest

A cardboard cutout of Rob Macaire is burned alongside British and US flags during a memorial for victims of the Ukraine plane crash at the University of Tehran on Tuesday. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images


The UK’s ambassador to Tehran has described as “persona non grata” and called for his expulsion by Iran`s judiciary, while crowds of regime supporters burned his effigy alongside the British flag.

The actions came after the envoy, Rob Macaire, was briefly arrested at the weekend and accused of “coordinating” anti-government protests.

Placards of Macaire were set alight in Tehran on Tuesday as a judiciary spokesman accused the diplomat of “interfering in [Iran’s] internal affairs” in breach of diplomatic conventions.

“Under international law, such a person is a ‘persona non grata’. The people expect the person to be expelled and that is also what international law calls for,” Gholamhossein Esmaili said, according to state media.

The labelling of Macaire, 53, as persona non grata – an official term that prohibits a diplomat from staying in a country – was not thought to be a formal declaration with legal consequences.

But it threatens to further sour a diplomatic relationship that is already strained by disputes over British citizens in Iranian jails, alleged outstanding debts for decades-old arms deals and the seizure of oil tankers.

Macaire was arrested on Saturday night about 30 minutes after he says he left a vigil for those killed onboard a Ukraine International Airlines flight mistakenly shot down by Iranian missiles. He is immune to prosecution in Iran under international law and was released a short time later.

He has denied playing any role in the protests that have erupted in parts of Tehran and the rest of the country in recent days.

Small demonstrations continued to be held at several universities on Tuesday and there were reports of a temporary nationwide internet outage in the early evening, raising fears authorities could cut off Iranian networks from the world as they did during a massive outbreak of protests in November.

The arrest appears to have been a mistake on the part of Tehran police, but Iran’s embattled government has taken the opportunity to deflect away some of the public anger it has faced over the revelation it shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, then denied having done so for three days.

The judiciary on Tuesday announced the first arrests had been made over the accidental shooting down of the airliner last Wednesday, which killed all 176 passengers.

Esmaili was quoted saying “extensive investigations have taken place and some individuals are arrested”. He did not name anyone or say how many had been held.

The country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in separate remarks called for a special court to be established to investigate the downing of the aircraft, which has triggered protests, rare apologies from the government and a wave of resignations from state-run media outlets.

Officials in the country had initially insisted the aircraft had suffered a technical fault and crashed, but admitted on Saturday morning it had been shot down after foreign investigators had arrived in the country and images had emerged on social media showing missile debris near the crash site. 

“The judiciary should form a special court with a ranking judge and dozens of experts,” Rouhani said in a televised speech in Iran on Tuesday. “This is not an ordinary case. The entire 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”.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the hardline military organisation set up to defend the regime, has taken responsibility for the incident, which occurred about five hours after Iranian missiles were fired at US forces stationed in Iraq and while its forces were on high alert for reprisals.

The Guards’ aerospace chief, Ali Hajizadeh, said last weekend that a missile operator had been told that the US had fired back at Iranian territory and mistook the plane for a cruise missile. He was unable to contact his superiors to ask if he should fire at the target and “made the bad choice”, Hajizadeh said.

On Tuesday, footage emerged that appeared to show the plane was hit by two missiles fired from a Iranian military facility. The footage, which was posted on YouTube, showed that the airliner was not downed immediately, but caught fire and circled back towards Tehran airport before crashing.

The overt and at times emotional claim of responsibility from what is usually a secretive organisation is unusual but “they had no choice,” said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute.

“The evidence was clear and others had the evidence,” she said. “They have tried to play the card of being seen as transparent and cooperative.”

Hajizadeh had said his organisation asked for the airspace over Tehran to be closed before the accident but that “our dear brothers [in the government] didn’t follow up the issue for certain considerations”.

But Bassiri said there had nonetheless been unusually little public sniping between competing factions and institutions inside the Iranian government over the incident. “There has been a focus on unity,” she said.

The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians – including many Iranians with dual citizenship – and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. There were 15 children among the passengers, including an infant.

Iran shot down the plane when it was braced for possible US retaliation over a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing US troops in Iraq. No one was hurt in that attack, which was carried out to avenge the killing of the Revolutionary Guards leader, Qassem Suleimani, in an American airstrike in Baghdad.

The downing and the lack of transparency around it has reignited anger in Iran at the country’s leadership, with protesters taking to the streetsVideos and witness accounts appeared to show security forces firing live ammunition and teargas to disperse protests.

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