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Morning Brief

Protests Put Iran’s Leadership on the Defensive

Iranian demonstrators are ramping up pressure on the government after it admitted the military mistakenly shot down a commercial plane last week.

A woman attends a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Ukrainian airliner downed by Iranian air defenses, in Tehran on Jan. 11.
A woman attends a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Ukrainian airliner downed by Iranian air defenses, in Tehran on Jan. 11. Mona HOOBEHFEKR / ISNA / AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Protests in Iran are raising pressure on the government after a Ukrainian plane was shot down last week, France summons African leaders for a meeting over rising violence in the Sahel region, and what to watch in the world this week.

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Iranian Protesters Challenge Regime

Thousands turned out for a second day of protests across Iran on Sunday, raising pressure on the government after it admitted the military accidentally shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner last Wednesday while its air defenses were on high alert. (Iran had launched at attack on U.S. military installations in Iraq hours earlier.) The crash killed all 176 people on board and the admission came after days of denial, angering protesters. In Tehran, demonstrators marched toward the capital’s Azadi Square despite a significant police presence.

The anti-government protests over the weekend contrasted sharply with the national mood after the U.S. assassination of military commander Qassem Suleimani, when millions joined regime-led funeral processions, FP reports. The apparent disregard for government directives was also noteworthy. And unlike the protests that began over a rise in fuel prices last fall, the latest wave of demonstrations includes many students and middle class Iranians.

Shifting blame. Iranian authorities denied for days that the Iranian military was responsible for the air disaster, even as the United States and Canada said the evidence appeared to show that Iranian missiles had mistakenly downed the plane. The protesters have directed their ire at authority figures, reportedly chanting, “Suleimani is a murderer, the leader is a traitor,” and “Death to the dictator”—a reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Trudeau vows action. Fifty-seven Canadians, mostly of Iranian descent, died in the plane crash. Thousands turned out for vigils across Canada on Sunday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to “pursue justice and accountability” for the disaster, speaking at a vigil in Edmonton, Alberta. He has already demanded that Canada be involved in the investigation. Iran has issued eight additional visas to Canadian officials, who were expected to arrive in Tehran today.

What We’re Following Today

France convenes African leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron has summoned five African presidents—from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania—to a meeting in the south of France today. There, he seeks to clarify their governments’ stances on the presence of French troops in the Sahel. Macron has threatened to withdraw 4,500 French troops from the region, where they are engaged in the fight against Islamist extremism. France initially intervened in Mali in 2013, and extremist violence is still on the rise—leading to some anti-French sentiment. The United States is also considering withdrawing soldiers from the region.

Mixed messaging from Trump administration. For over a week, U.S. President Donald Trump and officials have scrambled to explain the decision to assassinate the Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, on Jan. 3, escalating tensions with Iran to the brink of war. Over the weekend, the administration contradicted itself: Trump claimed on Friday that Iran was planning to attack four U.S. embassies, while Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that he was not shown evidence of those plans. The mixed messaging has added to the debate, with some lawmakers saying the administration hasn’t provided enough evidence of an “imminent” attack.

Philippine volcano could erupt soon. In the Philippines, thousands of people have been evacuated from a volcanic island near Manila. The Taal volcano spewed large amounts of ash and steam on Sunday, disrupting flights and causing authorities to warn of a possible “explosive eruption.” Lava later began to flow from the volcano, forcing the closure of Manila’s airport 60 miles away. Government offices and schools were also closed in the capital on Monday. The Taal volcano is small, but it is one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, which sits on the “Ring of Fire.” It last erupted in 1977.

The World This Week

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth has called a family meeting today at her Sandringham estate to address the options moving forward for Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who announced plans to step back from royal duties last week. The talks are likely to focus on logistics, as Harry and Meghan plan to split their time between Canada and Britain.

The last U.S. Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa caucus (Feb. 3) will be held in Des Moines on Tuesday, with six candidates taking the stage—making it the smallest debate so far. Sen. Bernie Sanders moved ahead of his rivals in a new poll from Iowa on Friday, followed closely by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The U.S.-China “phase one” trade deal will be signed in Washington on Wednesday. The deal includes commitments from China to buy more U.S. goods and to crack down on intellectual property violations, though enforcing the agreement could be a challenge. It’s also not the trade deal that Trump campaigned on, as FP’s Keith Johnson explains.

Keep an Eye On

The Australian PM’s dwindling popularity. After devastating bush fires, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval rating has dropped by eight points to 37 percent—the lowest level since he took office in Aug. 2018. The fires have killed 28 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, with critics accusing Morrison’s government of responding too slowly—both to the ongoing bush fire crisis and to global warming.

The case against Netanyahu. A committee could convene today to discuss Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity from three corruption cases. Most lawmakers are expected to vote against granting immunity to Netanyahu, who was indicted last November. Israel faces its third election in less than a year on March 2.

Anti-government sentiment in Thailand. At least 10,000 people registered for a “Run Against Dictatorship” in Bangkok on Sunday—one of the biggest shows of public dissent yet against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took initially power in a 2014 coup and was elected as leader last year. The run followed a large anti-government rally held last month.

Odds and Ends

The Canadian province of Ontario issued an apology on Sunday after a false alarm about an incident at a large nuclear power plant near Toronto, Canada’s most populous city. The alert, part of a training exercise, was sent to cell phone users across the province—angering local mayors. The power plant is scheduled to close down in 2024.

That’s it for today.

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Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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