January 7 marked the eve of the second anniversary of the shootdown of Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 by Iranian air defense, killing 176 passengers and crew.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement of condolences to the families of the victims – and to “inform” the public of actions the government took in the aftermath.
“Following the air crash, relevant organizations in the Islamic Republic of Iran declared the main cause of the accident and fulfilled their responsibilities and duties with accuracy, transparency and speed,” the ministry said.
But that and other aspects of the statement are so misleading they leave a false impression about Iran’s actions.
The Ukrainian jet took off on the evening of January 8, 2020, from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport bound for Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport. A few minutes after taking off, the jet was hit by two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 176 people on board.
Iran’s military was on alert because tensions with the United States were high. Days earlier, a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad assassinated Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Iran already had retaliated by firing missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq. Some feared war.
Those killed on the downed plane included 83 Iranians, 63 Canadians, four Afghans, four Britons, three Germans and nine Ukrainian crew members.
In its January 7 statement, Iran’s Foreign Ministry accused some countries of exploiting the painful “incident” for political purposes. The statement claimed technical teams had conducted a full investigation and publicly shared their findings. The ministry also said that the necessary criminal investigations were conducted to uphold justice.
That leaves a lot out of the story.
In fact, on January 9, 2020, the day after the shootdown, Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s national aviation department, denied that the plane had been hit by a missile, calling such reports “illogical rumors.” Other Iranian officials claimed a technical problem was the cause.
The next day, Iran admitted the plane had been shot down – “unintentionally.” Iran’s then foreign minister, Javad Zarif, offered condolences to families of the dead but blamed the U.S.
“Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster,” Zarif said on Twitter.
A statement by Iran’s armed forces also sought to shift responsibility, saying U.S. military activity around Iran’s borders increased Iran’s radar activity and aerial defense sensitivity.
Iran offered outsiders participation in an investigation. The Tehran Times published a statement by authorities inviting “the civil aviation agency of the country which has issued the airworthiness certificate (Ukraine), the owner of the airliner (Ukraine International Airlines), the aircraft manufacturer (Boeing Co.), and the jet engine manufacturer (CFM International).”
But for six months, Iran stalled in sending the black boxes, flight data and cockpit conversations to international investigators in Ukraine and France. Iran eventually sent the jet’s black box data recorders to Ukraine and France, but said it would not share them with Boeing in the United States. (Iran had initially said the involvement of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would be acceptable.)
The recordings were examined by an international team from France, Canada and the United States. The recordings revealed up to “19 seconds” of conversation recorded after the first missile hit. The second missile hit 25 seconds later.
In the first days after the disaster, a team of international experts did join the investigation, but they were closely monitored by Iranian security during initial visits to the wreckage site.
For example, in December 2020, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions said the Ukrainian investigation team arrived at the wreckage site on January 10.
The Ukrainian team claimed it was closely monitored and not allowed to take pictures or samples from the site for study. When the team communicated to the Iranian authorities that debris made it clear the plane had been shot down, they were ordered to leave the site.
The following day, Iran formally acknowledged a missile strike was the cause, and then-President Hassan Rouhani called it a “catastrophic mistake” and “unforgivable.” But the admission did not stop Iranian investigators from dragging their feet.
Not until July did the Iran Civil Aviation Organization issue its first report blaming the crew of the missile battery. The report cited misalignment of the anti-aircraft battery, which had been moved, and miscommunications with commanders.
But Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said Iran’s report contained unexplained contradictions. For instance, other planes took off from the Tehran airport the same night but were not targeted.
“Inconsistencies in the official explanation and the reckless nature of the mistakes have led many, including myself, to question whether the downing of flight PS752 was intentional,” said Callamard.
“The Government of Iran denied for three days that the flight had been shot down insisting that the crash was caused by a fire. However, a special, secret investigation was launched on 8 January 2020, which concluded the same day that the flight had been hit by a missile fired as a result of human error. Iran’s Civilian Aviation Organization, was also apparently aware of this from the outset.
“During this three-day period, Iranian officials reportedly used bulldozers to collect parts of the plane, which prevented them from being analyzed in situ and looting occurred at the crash site. Allegedly, some personal possessions from the crash site were burned under instruction.”
In March 2021, Iran published a final report that officially blamed air defense systems.
However, several countries and the United Nations investigator involved in the probe criticized the Iranian report. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) said that while Iran’s explanation of what happened was plausible, it had not provided any evidence to support it.
“The report does not provide detailed information regarding how the (battery) misalignment occurred, nor what steps were taken to ensure it was properly calibrated, the missile operator’s training, experience, or proficiency, nor about how or why the required communications with central command were either not followed or were unsuccessful,” the TSB said.
In addition, the Ukrainian Office of the Prosecutor General said Iran withheld key information.
“The names and positions of the accused and the actions of each of them are being thoroughly concealed,” the office said.
In May 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report accusing the Iranian authorities of a campaign to harass the families of the dead – an effort bury the truth and squash hope for justice.
Based on interviews, the human rights watchdog said Iran security agencies had “arbitrarily detained, summoned, abusively interrogated, tortured, and otherwise mistreated victims’ family members. The agencies also failed to return victims’ possessions to their relatives and interfered with burial and memorial gatherings in an apparent attempt to curtail efforts for accountability.”
In November 2021, Global News published a report by the Association of the Families of Flight PS752 suggesting that Iranians had tampered with electronic devices recovered in the wreckage.
“The fact that these memory/data components are missing is not consistent with damage caused by a sudden and hard impact,” the report said. “Moreover, the fact that screws were removed and covers pried open strongly suggests that concerted efforts were made to extract these components, rendering a review of data impossible.”
In late 2020, Iran announced it would pay $150,000 to the families of each of the 176 victims. Iran’s Foreign Ministry, however, said it only started processing these compensation payments on January 5 of this year. Iran also said court sessions would be held with the presence of the families to hold 10 unnamed people accountable for the shoot down.
On the anniversary of the shoot down this month, Ukraine's National Defense and Security Council secretary, Oleksiy Danilov, told the Voice of America that Iran had refused to cooperate with Ukraine’s investigation. He also asserted that the passenger jet was shot down intentionally.
“What happened on January 8th, 2020, was a terrorist act committed against a civilian aircraft,” Danilov said.