13/01/2020 22:15 GMT | Updated 14/01/2020 11:03 GMT

High-Profile Iranians Take Stand Against Government Amid Anger Over Plane Crash Cover-Up

Analyst Negar Mortazavi tells HuffPost UK that journalists and sports stars have been emboldened to criticise regime.

At least three television presenters working for Iran’s state broadcaster have announced they have quit their jobs in the aftermath of the government admitting it downed a Ukraine airliner, killing all 176 people onboard.

The broadcasters are just the latest in a growing line of high-profile figures in the country that have publicly made clear their unease with the regime.  

Gelare Jabbari, an anchor on the Iranian state broadcaster IRIB, took to Instagram on Sunday to break the news to her 50,000 followers in a now-deleted post.

In her statement, she suggested that the government had been dishonest with the public as she apologised for the “13 years I told you lies”.

“It was very hard for me to believe that our people have been killed,” she wrote.

“Forgive me that I got to know this late. And forgive me for the 13 years I told you lies.”

Gelare Jabbari

This followed Zahra Khatami’s resignation from her role at the same network. Also writing on Instagram, she said: “Thank you for accepting me as anchor until today. I will never get back to TV. Forgive me.”

Saba Rad used the same platform to announce that she was quitting: “Thank you for your support in all years of my career.” she wrote.

“I announce that after 21 years working in radio and tv, I cannot continue my work in the media. I cannot.”

This comes as public anger has continued to intensify after the Iranian government denied that it was to blame for shooting down Ukrainian jetliner 752, before it eventually held admitted it had “mistakenly” caused the tragedy.

Speaking to HuffPost UK, Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and analyst, described the resignations as “significant”, adding that dissent is being more accepted.

“The anchors’ resignations are a new level; to boycott the state TV, to also announce they are boycotting it and especially because they’re women,” she said.

Mortazavi explained that a similar precedent was set during the 2009 presidential election when one of the news anchors of state TV stopped going on air following violent protests. “But he never announced it on social media the way these women have,” she said.

Negar Mortazavi
Negar Mortazavi

The journalist said the resignations reflect just how the downing of the plane is impacting public morale.

“All the politics and social unrest aside, it is a completely new level of tragedy because it’s a direct result of war and tension,” the analyst added.

“On that plane you had students, children, families, a lot of non-political people. The victims were casualties of a war that hasn’t even started; that, combined with the incompetence of a government that people have been protesting against, saw things culminate in that way.

“It just shows how conflict can take a toll on people who are completely uninvolved and don’t even live in the country can be victims. The incompetence just adds to the anger.”

This comes as the Tehran-based Association of Iranian Journalists said in a statement that the country was witnessing “a funeral for public trust” that was damaging the already shaky reputation of Iran’s official media.

But the crisis is not restricted to the media. Over the weekend Kimia Alizadeh, the only female athlete to win an Olympic medal for Iran, announced that she had defected from the nation because of “hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery”.

The Olympian, 21, also broke the news in an Instagram post, which was accompanied by a photograph from the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, where she was awarded a bronze medal for taekwondo.

Alizadeh said she had been used as a “tool” by the Iranian government, writing: “I wore whatever they told me and repeated whatever they ordered. Every sentence they ordered I repeated. None of us matter for them, we are just tools.”

Two leading Iranian chess players, Shohreh Bayat and Mitra Hejazipour, took a stand against their country’s regime by removing their hijab in competitions outside of the country.

This led to their expulsion from the league because the action is considered defiance of Iran’s mandatory Islamic dress code.

Bayat, who is an international chess referee, said she would not be returning to Iran.

Just two days into 2020, the Iran Chess Federation expelled female chess grandmaster Mitra Hejazipour for removing her scarf during the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship in Russia.

Hejazipour, who now plans to live in France where she will compete privately, was told she “has no place in the Islamic Republic’s national team any more”, the BBC reported.

ATTA KENARE via Getty Images
Iranian chess players Mitra Hejazipour and Sara Khademalsharieh.

There are many other examples of Iranian sportspeople bearing the brunt of the government’s stringent regime.

Iran has a blanket ban on any athletes competing against Israeli opponents because the state of Israel is not recognised by the country. 

On occasion, Iranian authorities have placed pressure on its athletes to deliberately lose competitions if winning would result in them facing an Israeli opponent.

Alireza Karimachiani was winning a wrestling match against Russian opponent in the under-23 world championships last November when his coach ordered him to lose, otherwise he would face an Israeli competitor.  

STR via Getty Images
Iranians hold hands during a demonstration in front of Tehran's Amir Kabir University after Iran admitted to having shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet by mistake.

For this, Karimi-Machiani was banned for six months.

The head of Iran’s wrestling federation resigned in response to this and, in clear condemnation of the Iranian government’s rules, said: “Forcing an athlete to accept defeat or run around all night looking for a doctor’s note is not right.” 

However when faced with a similar predicament - lose or face an Israeli - Saeid Mollaei, the 2018 judo world champion in the 81kg category, withdrew altogether while defending his title in Tokyo last year.

“I am a fighter,” he said in response to the matter. “I want to compete wherever I can. I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice; all athletes must comply with it.

“Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid. I am afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself.” 

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Saeid Mollaei (in white) of Iran and Gulduren Ilker (in blue) of Turkey compete for the men's judo 81kg gold medal in 2017.

These string of high profile protests comes as demonstrators denouncing Iran’s regime took to the streets and riot police were deployed to face them on Monday, in a third day of demonstrations after the government acknowledged mistakenly shooting down a passenger plane.

Iran’s president called last week’s downing of the Ukrainian plane a “disastrous mistake” on Saturday, saying its air defenses were fired in error while on alert after it carried out missile strikes on US targets in Iraq.

Iranian public anger, rumbling for days after Tehran had repeatedly denied it was to blame for the plane crash, erupted into protests when the military admitted its role.

Mortazavi assessed public sentiment in Iran through a comparison with a historical event that is fresh in the mind of many civilians: the downing of an Iranian plane in 1988. During the Iran-Iraq War, the US navy shot down an airliner, killing 290 civilians, during an offensive.

“That event is in the public psyche and the Iranian government has been using that as a major grievance against the US, for making such a grave mistake, for three decades.

“Now they made the same exact mistake themselves; probably even worse because this is their own missile shooting down their own civilians. In that way, it’s really significant, in fact ironic, and it also speaks to the incompetence of the establishment that people have been talking about,” the journalist said.

“Honestly I believe human error can happen in such situations in wartime - but the problem starts when you let civilian flights be in the middle of a cross fire of an operation. And then the lies and the denial afterwards leads to a lack of trust and now we are hearing the people calling the government a liar.

“There’s a very iconic slogan that I heard on the street which I think sums this up: ‘You and I will pay the price of this harsh revenge’.”.