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Iranians take to the streets to protest government after it admits downing plane

After the U.S. killed an elite Iranian general, the regime in Tehran hoped to unify its people, many of whom had been protesting against Iran’s government for months. But then Iran’s military accidentally shot down a passenger aircraft and denied it for three days, driving civilian dissenters into uproar against the Islamic Republic instead. Nick Schifrin reports and joins Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The government of Iran is under intense new pressure tonight after admitting its forces shot down a passenger airliner last week.

    Protests rocked the Islamic Republic through the weekend and again today.

    We begin with this report from foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Iranian regime wanted to unite the country around a general assassinated by the U.S. Instead, regime actions led demonstrators to united in tearing him down.

    For three straight days, Iranians in several cities have protested their government. Cell phone videos from the capital, Tehran, show demonstrators chanting, "Shame on the Revolutionary Guards." Many of the protesters are students, furious that the Revolutionary Guards accidentally shot down a passenger jet last week, killing 176, after denying it for three days.

    At a weekend vigil for the crash victims, a sign read, "The government's lies killed us," and relatives of those killed blamed the regime.

  • Woman (through translator):

    We are gathered here because of some people's inefficiency, because of some people's inadequacy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Only seven days ago, hundreds of thousands of Iranians rallied around the regime and mourned major General Qasem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq.

    But, this weekend, the regime turned their guns on their own people. These cell phone videos reportedly show a woman reportedly shot in the leg by police forces and a protester's blood dripped along a sidewalk.

    At one point, a huge crowd started running for their lives. You can hear the tear gas canister fired at protesters by police.

  • Nader Hashemi:

    The protests are immediately responding to Iran's admission of guilt for shooting down the Ukrainian aircraft. But I think these protests are much bigger, and much larger, and much more significant than simply that event.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nader Hashemi is a professor at the University of Denver. He calls these protests a reflection of previous Iranian demonstrators, including late last year, sparked by increased gas prices, and the 2009 Green Movement, when protesters called for social freedoms and the reversal of an election considered rigged.

  • Nader Hashemi:

    Over the last several decades, a new generation of young people have been born and raised in the Islamic Republic that have a very different vision for the future than their leaders do. These young people aspire for democracy, to greater freedoms, to human rights.

    But they're living in a deeply authoritarian system that is committed to denying them those aspirations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump encouraged the protests and warned the regime.

    On Sunday he tweeted: "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."

    The next day, President Trump retweeted an image that mocked top congressional Democrats as tools for Iran.

    On Fox News today, Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham went even further.

  • Stephanie Grisham:

    I think the president is making clear that the Democrats are — have been parroting Iranian talking points and almost taking the side of terrorists.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior administration officials also struggled to synchronize their story for why they targeted Soleimani in the days after Iranian-backed militias laid siege to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies. And I think that probably Baghdad already started.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But on CBS's "Face the Nation," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declined to repeat that.

  • Mark Esper:

    Well, the president didn't say there was a tangible — he didn't cite a specific piece of evidence.

    What he said is he probably — he believed, could have been…

  • Margaret Brennan:

    Are you saying there wasn't one?

  • Mark Esper:

    I didn't see one with regard to four embassies.

    What I'm saying is, I share the president's view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Trump administration officials tell "PBS NewsHour" they believe their maximum pressure campaign is working. But critics warned the policies are strengthening Iran's hard-liners, and the cycle of confrontation continues.

  • Nader Hashemi:

    The Trump administration is feeling emboldened by these protests. And the Iranian government is in no mood for negotiation after the assassination of Soleimani.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So — and Nick Schifrin joins me now.

    So, Nick, we were just hearing this expert say confrontation between the U.S. and Iran likely to continue. So, is the United States interested in negotiating or not?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That is the stated goal of what the U.S. has been doing in the past, but we see a subtle shift away from emphasis on negotiations.

    And this happened especially in a presidential tweet this weekend. Judy, we saw the president responding to a statement by the national security adviser, suggesting that the maximum pressure campaign would force Iran to negotiate. You see that in the middle right there. The president responded: "I couldn't care less if they negotiate."

    And, by the way, he later retweeted that message in Farsi.

    I asked a senior State Department official about that. And the official said that our priority is getting Iran to change its behavior, stop supporting terrorism, give up ballistic missiles, end its nuclear program. And there are multiple ways for us to get Iran to do that.

    So the message from the president and this official is that we do want behavior changed, but we're not necessarily going to emphasize negotiations.

    And that does the mean the tension will increase. The U.S. believes the strategies are working. And Iran doesn't want to negotiate under the current circumstances, and under this current very serious threat in Iran that we're talking about here.

    We not only saw the students protesting. We saw the accidental arrest of a British ambassador. We saw high-profile defections. And we even saw criticism from hard-line newspapers demanding resignations. So Iran does have a very serious problem with these protests.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, meantime, Nick, you had a continuing discussion over the weekend about just how imminent the threat was before General Soleimani was killed.

    Where does that all stand?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, a U.S. official — U.S. official tells me that President Trump did authorize the strike on Soleimani months ago.

    That means that that was regardless of the current threats. But, at the same time, senior administration officials tell me that he reauthorized the strike on Soleimani in the days before the strike, and so that means there are these dual instincts from the administration that reflect these kind of dual talking points.

    You have the Pentagon, State Department, CIA pushing for a large response against Iran in general, and then those same people, seeing the same in Baghdad, seeing this U.S. official die from an Iranian-backed militia, and wanting to, as they put it, reestablish deterrence, really send Iran a strong message, and hence Soleimani was killed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The story doesn't go away.

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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