DUBAI: The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other officials in Tehran on Sunday as diplomatic efforts picked up to defuse tensions in the Gulf following the assassination of Gen Qassem Soleimani. Qatar enjoys warm relations with the United States and Iran.

Syria’s Prime Minister Imad Khamis also led a high-level delegation to Iran, including the defence and foreign ministers. Syrian state media described it as an important visit in the light of recent events, without elaborating.

Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war, and Gen Soleimani had mobilised militias and coordinated military aid.

On the streets of Tehran, security forces deployed in large numbers on Sunday, expecting more protests after its Revolutionary Guard admitted to accidentally shooting down Ukraine’s passenger plane at a time of soaring tensions with the United States.

Riot police in black uniforms and helmets massed in Vali-e Asr Square, Tehran University and other landmarks as calls circulated for protests against the government. Revolutionary Guard members patrolled the city on motorcycles and plainclothes security men were also out in force. People looked down as they walked briskly past the police, hoping not to draw attention.

The plane crash on Wednesday killed all 176 people on board, mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians. After initially pointing to a technical failure and insisting the armed forces were not to blame, authorities finally admitted on Saturday to accidentally shooting it down in the face of mounting evidence and accusations by Western leaders.

Iran downed the Ukrainian flight as it braced for retaliation after firing ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing US forces. The ballistic missile attack, which caused no casualties, was a response to the killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general, in a US airstrike in Baghdad.

Iranians have expressed anger over the downing of the plane and the misleading explanations from senior officials in the wake of the tragedy. They are also mourning the dead, among whom were a large number of young people with promising futures who were studying abroad.

“Even talking about it makes my heart beat faster and makes me sad,” said Zahra Razeghi, a Tehran resident. ‘I feel ashamed when I think about their families.

“The denial and covering up the truth over the past three days greatly added to the suffering and pain of the families, and mine.”

Another individual, who only identified himself as Saeed, said the state-run media had concealed the cause of the crash for political reasons.

“Later developments changed the game and they had to tell the truth,” he said.

Hundreds of students gathered at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University on Sunday to mourn the victims and protest against authorities for concealing the cause of the crash. They later dispersed peacefully.

Bahareh Arvin, a reformist member of Tehran city council, took to social media to say she was resigning in protest at the government’s lies and corruption, saying that “with the current mechanism, there is no hope of reform”.

A number of Iranian artists, including famed director Masoud Kimiai, withdrew from an upcoming international film festival.

President Donald Trump, who has expressed support for past waves of anti-government demonstrations in Iran, addressed the country’s leaders in a tweet, saying DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. The World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching, he tweeted.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2020