The family members of people killed by plane crashes sometimes have to wait years for closure – which may never come. But for once, the families of those on board the crashed Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 didn’t have to wait that long. Closure came in the form of a shocking awakening that will be hard to digest.
In the early hours of the morning on the first day of Iran’s workweek, Saturday, January 11, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Iran published a communique that explained the reasons for the crash. It said that the plane had been shot down by Iran’s own forces “unintentionally and based on human error.”
The airliner was taking off from Tehran’s international Imam Khomeini airport, on its way to Kiev, at about the same time that more than a dozen Iranian missiles were raining on military bases in Iraq, in retaliation for the assassination of a leading Iranian general, Ghassem Soleimani, a few days earlier. According to the communique, the airliner “was flying near a sensitive military site of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps” (IRGC) when it was shot down, leading to the “martyrdom of a group of our fellow Iranians and the deaths of a number of foreign citizens.”
The communique declares its “sympathy with the mourning families of fellow Iranians and citizens of other countries” and “apologizes for the human error.” It also promised “fundamental reforms” to make such errors “impossible in the future” and to hold the appropriate individuals to account.
The communique was followed by media interviews given by the man who has emerged as the public face of responsibility for the Guards’ blunder. Commander Amir Ali Hajizade, head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace force, after explaining what had occurred, said: “When I realized that this happened, I wished that I was dead. I wish I had died before seeing such an incident.”
Hajizade explained that IRGC forces were on full alert on the night of the flight, “especially since the US had promised to hit 52 targets in Iran,” referring to a Twitter threat by US President Donald Trump.
According to the Guards’ commander, the IRGC’s air defense systems were activated to shoot down American cruise missiles.
“It only took the pressing of a button to fire the air defense system,” Hajizadeh said, before going on to say that an operator had done exactly that. He said an interview with him will be soon published by the media.
According to this version of events, the operator saw an object 19 kilometers away and identified it as a cruise missile. “The operator was supposed to make contact to get approval before acting,” Hajizadeh said. “This is where he made the mistake. He didn’t make the call. His communication systems had problems and he couldn’t make contact. He had 10 seconds to decide whether to shoot. He took this bad decision and targeted the plane.”
But why was Iran stonewalling for three days and not telling the truth?
Hajizadeh claims that officials of Iran’s civil aviation authority were not aware of the errant missile. “I found out on Wednesday and called the authorities to let them know,” he added. “Those [originally] in the know were quarantined while the investigation was going on.” This version of events is unlikely to placate critics, since aviation authorities were adamant that the missile scenario was impossible and since there seems to have been active attempts at covering-up the truth.
Hajizadeh, a key IRGC commandeer who has led the aerospace force since its founding in 2009, has been clearly singled out as the person in charge who should take the brunt of responsibility. And Iran’s higher authorities have responded with their usual aloofness.
The short statement by Iran’s commander-in-chief, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed “sincere commiserations and deep sympathy” with the victims but offered no apology. President Hassan Rouhani’s English-language tweet offered “thoughts and prayers,” by now an international sign of doing little, while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s tweet could not resist casting blame on “a time of crisis caused by US adventurism” although he did offer “our profound regrets, apologies and condolences” to the victims.
These gestures are unlikely to quell public anger at what is being called a Chernobyl moment for the Islamic Republic. Social media is rife with conspiracy theories peddled by supporters of the regime, ranging from claims that a “Zionist Jew” aboard the flight had blown it up to Iran’s responsibility being a Boeing plot to keep its stock prices up.
Basic questions still persist. If the country was on high alert, why not cancel commercial flights, Roya Rahimpoor, a BBC Persian correspondent has asked.
How come no one has resigned following the incident, Shahindokht Mowlaverdi, previously a cabinet-level official of Rouhani’s government, has wondered.
Iranian civil society and its international partners knows that it was their ceaseless pressure that cornered the regime into telling the truth. And some activists have caustically wondered if the truth about massacres of popular protests, over the past several years, would have been exposed had there been Canadian or Swedish citizens among the victims.
Before Iran’s surprising admission of responsibility, many analysts had predicted that the government would continue its denials and misinformation for years, using another Soviet incident as an example. The Soviet Union long denied that it had inadvertently downed a Korean airliner, in 1983, despite widespread belief that they were at fault; now, between Iran’s initial denials and the incompetence highlighted through the Chernobyl parallel, many feel that Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 shows something is rotten in the Islamic Republic.
Later today there will be a vigil on Tehran’s Hafez Avenue, in front of the city's Amir Kabir University. It will be a brief pause, with solemn moments of grief, but people’s rage is unlikely to subside. Iranians are currently going through some of the tensest days of their lives. What is especially notable is the fact that, while the Revolutionary Guards were savvy enough to not kill a single American soldier through its airstrikes on American bases in Iraq, they could not extend the same care to the lives of ordinary Iranians and foreign guests of the country.
A poet might say that the Islamic Republic of Iran, for all its gross negligence and rot, has so far only survived because it has forgotten to die. But now – following Soleimani’s assassination, when the regime promised “severe revenge” against the United States – many of Iran’s own people are bound to promise the same “severe revenge” against a government that shows wanton disregard for the lives of its people.