Under pressure, Iran admits it shot down Ukrainian plane

Iranian General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) aerospace division, said his unit accepted “full responsibility” for the shootdown.
Sunday 12/01/2020
Disastrous mistake. Wreckage from a Ukrainian plane is seen on the ground in Shahedshahr, south-west of Tehran, January 8. (AP)
Disastrous mistake. Wreckage from a Ukrainian plane is seen on the ground in Shahedshahr, south-west of Tehran, January 8. (AP)

TEHRAN - Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has acknowledged that it shot down a Ukrainian jetliner, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied international accusations that it was responsible.

The plane was shot down early January 9, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing US troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani in an American air strike in Baghdad. No one was wounded in the Iranian attack on the bases.

Iranian General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) aerospace division, said his unit accepted “full responsibility” for the shootdown. In an address broadcast by state TV, he said that when he learned about the downing of the plane, “I wished I was dead.”

He said IRGC forces ringing Tehran had beefed up air defences and were at the “highest level of readiness,” fearing that the United States would retaliate. He said an officer made the “bad decision” to open fire on the plane after mistaking it for a cruise missile.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed “deep sympathy” to the families of the victims and called on the armed forces to “pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident.”

Iran’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders since Soleimani’s killing. Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC’s al-Quds Force and the architect of Iran’s regional military interventions, was seen as a national icon. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians had turned out for funeral processions across the country.

Most of the crash victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians.

After three days of denials, Tehran tried to control the damage from its loss of credibility. The reputational damage is expected to endure for a long time.

Iranian officials repeatedly ruled out a missile strike against the jetliner, dismissing allegations as Western propaganda that officials said was offensive to the victims. On January 9, Iranian cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei dismissed reports of a missile, saying they “rub salt on a painful wound” for families of the victims.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a statement saying the crash investigation should continue and the “perpetrators” should be brought to justice. He said Iran should compensate victims’ families and requested “official apologies through diplomatic channels.”

The crash was just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in petrol prices. Iran has been in the grip of a severe economic crisis since US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani blamed the shootdown of the plane in part on “threats and bullying” by the United States after the killing of Soleimani. He expressed condolences to families of the victims and called for a “full investigation” and the prosecution of those responsible.

“A sad day,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster. Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims and to other affected nations.”

The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.

The United States and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos verified by the Associated Press.

The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lowered the country’s death toll from 63.

“This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step towards closure with this admission,” said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who said he lost a number of friends in the crash.

“I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face.”

Iran’s acknowledgement of responsibility was likely to renew questions of why authorities did not shut down the country’s main international airport and its airspace after the ballistic missile attack if they feared US reprisals.

It also undermines the credibility of information provided by senior Iranian officials. As recently as January 10, Ali Abedzadeh, head of the national aviation department, said “with certainty” that a missile had not caused the crash.

Iran had invited Ukraine, Canada, the United States and France to take part in the investigation of the crash, in keeping with international norms. The Boeing 737 was built in the United States and its engines were built by a US-French consortium.

Zelensky said Ukraine’s investigators, already in Iran, should continue their work with “full access and cooperation.”

Hajizadeh said the pilot and crew of the passenger plane had done nothing wrong and that the armed forces alone were responsible.

The semi-official Fars news agency reported that Khamenei on the morning of January 10 had ordered top security officials to review the crash and announce the results.

“If some individuals, in any position, were aware of the issue but made statements contradicting the reality or hid the truth for any reason, they should be named and tried,” said Fars, which is close to the IRGC.

Others speculated that the security forces may have concealed information from civilian authorities.

“Concealing the truth from the administration is dreadful,” Mohammad Fazeli, a sociology professor in Tehran, wrote on social media. “If it had not been concealed, the head of civil aviation and the government spokesmen would not have persistently denied it.”

“Concealing the truth for three days is dangerous,” he added.