Iranian Vice President Claims People's 'Hatred' of U.S. Has 'Increased' After Protesters Say America Isn't Their 'Enemy'

Iran's First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri argued Monday that his people's "hatred" of the U.S. has "increased" following the killing of military commander Qassem Soleimani, despite protesters' chants during the weekend that America was not their "enemy."

Large anti-government protests took place in Iran's capital Tehran during the weekend, with smaller demonstrations reported in other cities across the country. Demonstrators expressed anger after Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) admitted to mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian International Airlines flight, killing all 176 passengers, after the government had denied for three days that the aircraft was downed by a rocket.

"They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here," protesters chanted on Sunday. The day before, they shouted "death to the dictator," referencing Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Jahangiri claimed that Iranians were actually more angry at America, due to the killing of Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike on January 3.

"Certainly, the Iranian nation's hatred for the U.S. measures has increased compared with the past," Jahangiri said as he met with Syrian Prime Minister Imad al-Khamis in Tehran on Monday, Iran's Fars News Agency reported.

Iran protest
A woman attending a candlelight vigil, in memory of the victims of Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737, talks to a policeman following the gathering in front of the Amirkabir University in the Iranian capital Tehran on January 11 MONA HOOBEHFEKR/ISNA/AFP/Getty

The Iranian leader also urged leaders throughout the Middle East to expel the U.S. from the region, noting the vote by the Iraqi parliament to do just that. He said that the exit of U.S. forces from the region would be the "real revenge" for the killing of Soleimani, according to Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency.

Soleimani's funeral was attended by tens of thousands in Iran last week, as many Iranians viewed him as a popular defender of their country. While large numbers of Iranians have demonstrated against the U.S. and called for "revenge," the downing of the Ukraine flight has reignited frustrations with their own government. The majority of the plane's passengers were Iranian nationals, which added to the people's anger.

The plane was shot down hours after the IRGC had launched missiles targeting military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq in a showing of force designed to respond to the U.S. strike that took out Soleimani. The IRGC said they mistook the Ukrainian aircraft for an incoming missile. Complicating the situation, government officials initially tried to cover up the military's actions, saying it was "impossible" for such a mistake to occur.

But, following international pressure and the U.S., U.K. and Canada all publicly saying that intelligence showed that the Iranian military had shot down the aircraft, Iran's leaders acknowledged the country's role in the incident. Although officials expressed their sincere condolences to the people, protesters called for resignations and even for the IRGC to leave the country altogether.

"I think the government will tolerate the initial outburst of public anger, but should protests go out of control, I think we should expect heavy-handed government response," Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut told Newsweek.

Videos circulated on social media showed Iran's police dispersing demonstrators with tear gas. The Iranian government cracked down heavily on previous anti-government protests late last year, with reports of hundreds of demonstrators being killed by the authorities.

Iran protest
Iranians students demonstrate following a tribute for the victims of a Ukraine International Airlines flight in front of the Amirkabir University in the capital Tehran on January 11 ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty

President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have jumped behind the demonstrations, vowing their support for the Iranian people and reiterating their criticism of the nation's government.

"To the leaders of Iran - DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching," Trump tweeted Sunday.

The State Department tweeted out a message from Pompeo, saying: "America hears you. America supports you. America stands with you."

Critics were quick to note, however, that Trump's government has banned Iranian citizens from obtaining visas to the U.S. The administration has also implemented crippling financial sanctions against Iran.

"The present wave of protests has the potential of developing into a revolution," Khashan said, noting that the downing of the Ukrainian plane had caused a "heavy loss" of Iranian lives. He also pointed out that it reminded him of the events that led to the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Khashan suggested that Trump's support could give the demonstrations a "boost" as well. However, he noted that "the U.S. does not have a good record of going beyond rhetoric in supporting the cause of rebellious people."