An Iranian official at Iran’s foreign ministry has informed IranWire that President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were informed about the shooting down of a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane within a few hours of the incident taking place on January 8, 2020.
All 176 passengers and crew were killed after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot the plane, later admitting to it and claiming it was an accident. The statements from the Iranian official IranWire spoke to are in sharp contrast to recent reporting by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well by pro-government media in Iran, all of which have stated that the Iranian president had no knowledge of the incident and was only told about it a few days later when he threatened to resign.
“There was a great deal of commotion in the foreign ministry on January 8,” says the diplomat, who spoke to IranWire on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of speaking about a national security matter. “We heard from Mr Zarif’s advisors and close colleagues that the Revolutionary Guards had shot down the plane. We didn’t know who had told them. But today we’ve learned that the message came from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and it told the foreign ministry to be careful and not to leak the information.”
The passenger plane was shot down five days after American forces killed Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, the unit which is in charge of foreign operations, on January 3, 2020. Soleimani and the leader of an Iranian proxy group in Iraq were killed in Baghdad by American drones. After Soleimani’s death, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran would take revenge against the US within a few days. A few hours before the Ukrainian plane crash, Iran launched missiles against two US bases in Iraq. The attacks did not result in any American casualties but Iran boasted that it had killed 180 American forces. In a speech a few hours later, Ayatollah Khamenei hailed the attack as a great victory. The ayatollah did not mention the plane crash in his speech.
“That day, the whole government was ordered to promote the great victory against the Americans and concentrate on Mr Khamenei’s speech,” says the diplomat. “Any divergence from that order could be interpreted as betraying national security.” Iranian officials claimed that the crash was an accident and at that point took no responsibility. It was only three days later, after the Canadian government — which had 57 citizens on board the plane — told the world that the plane was shot down, that Iranians claimed responsibility.
On February 3, 2020 Ukrainian media published a conversation between the pilot of another plane and controller at the Tehran airport from which the Ukrainian plane had taken off. In the conversation the pilot says that he sees an explosion in the distance and wonders about the safety of his plane. “It was only after that conversation was published that we had a series of crisis management meetings at the ministry of foreign affairs and were told that, ‘yes, we knew about it from the beginning.’” According to the diplomat, Iranian bureaucrats have been asked to work on messaging with the Revolutionary Guards. “The Guards simply don’t know that you cannot keep anything secret in this day and age when everything is recorded and documented, and we are supposed to tell them about this.”
The diplomat says that Iranian diplomats, as well as many other government officials in Iran, have been worried about the increasing power of the Revolutionary Guards. “The Guards manipulated the 2009 presidential election but really messed it up. They’re involved in many large industrial projects that are submerged in corruption and mismanagement. And they also create chaos whenever they get involved in diplomacy.” Ghasem Soleimani had once famously sent a text message to the commander of American forces in Iraq General David Petraeus saying that he was in charge of Iran’s diplomacy in the Middle East.
“Many Iranian diplomats are really like the crew of a sinking ship who are trying to help people before it’s drowned,” says the diplomat. “We are really ashamed of what happened and would like to apologize to the families of the victims. I hope they can forgive us."
IranWire asked another Iranian diplomat to comment on the case. The diplomat’s answer: Sadly, it’s true.