Protests erupted in Iran soon after the government admitted to having accidentally shot down a passenger plane killing 176 people. That disaster took place amid escalating tensions with the US over the killing of Qassem Suleimani, head of the country’s powerful Quds force. The crowds have called on their supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to step down, and security forces have responded with teargas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition. In one of the most visceral displays of anger so far, a young man climbed up a billboard depicting Suleimani. After making it to the top, he kicked the picture and eventually dragged it down.
The apparent shift in the public’s attitude towards its government has puzzled some observers. Just a week ago, Iranians appeared to be united in mourning the loss of a revered general but today they are taking to the streets against the ruling elite. In an attempt to explain the apparent contradiction, some have claimed that the mourning was inauthentic, regime propaganda that has been unquestioningly swallowed by western media. In contrast, others argue that today’s protests are the “real Iran”, and represent the authentic face of the country. According to Donald Trump, the Iranians who refused to step on an American flag painted at the entrance to a building were “wonderful” and their behaviour a sign of “big progress”. So which is it? Is Iran a nation of people easily coerced into participating in pro-regime rallies or a country of brave souls willing to risk their lives for justice?