Publishing fake news and making false claims in the Islamic Republic of Iran is nothing new. And yet, over the last four months of the Iranian calendar year of 1398, from November 22, 2019, to March 19, 2020, the volume of lies the Iranian government propagated was unprecedented. Fake news over those four months included reports about the November 2019 protests and the numbers of people killed, Iran’s retaliation for the US assassination of General Ghasem Soleimani, the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and, finally, the coronavirus epidemic.
To mark the Iranian new year, IranWire examines government disinformation campaigns on these issues in a six-part series.
In the fourth article in this series, IranWire reviews claims by Iranian officials and media about the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet over Tehran on January 8.
On January 8, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, bound for Kiev, crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s Khomeini International Airport at 6:12pm, killing all 176 onboard. Following the crash, American and then British, Australian and Canadian officials announced that the Ukrainian Boeing 737 had been shot down by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile. After examining security camera footage posted online that showed that Flight 752 was taken down by two missiles fired 30 seconds apart, the New York Times verified the authenticity of the reports.
In the meantime, however, official Iranian media and supporters of the regime were pushing a different narrative on social media. They presented a wide range of reasons to prove that the Ukrainian plane could not possibly have been shot down by missiles and called the journalists who disagreed with this assertion “traitors” against their country.
First: “We did not shoot down the plane!”
“In the course of their psychological warfare, Americans claimed today that the Ukrainian plane had been hit [by a missile], which is a ridiculous claim,” said Abolfazl Shekarchi, the Armed Forces’ senior spokesman, a few hours after Flight 752 crashed. He characterized the news that the plane had been brought down by missiles as “rumors” and “pure lies,” adding: “this [rumor] is certainly pursued by promoters of discord in the interests of the Americans.”
The next day, government spokesman Ali Rabiei called the news “a well-known and calculated way of operation in psychological warfare” and predicted that “when in the days ahead this false claim is revealed to be an absolute lie nobody will take responsibility for this big lie.” He added: “I am sorry that the American system of psychological operations and those who, knowingly or unknowingly, go along with it are adding salt to the injuries of grieving families.”
“The missile strike on the Ukrainian plane is scientifically impossible and such rumors lack any logic,” said Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, on January 9. “There is perfect coordination between all military and civil sectors in Iran. At the time of the crash, tens of Iranian and foreign planes were flying over the safe skies of Iran. Could so many flights in the Iranian airspace have taken place if the skies of this country were not safe?”
On the same day, Tasnim News Agency, an affiliate of the Revolutionary Guards, published a special report that said “certain Western sources tell Tasnim that it was the White House that decided to use the card of the Ukrainian Boeing airliner’s crash near Imam Khomeini Airport and that the task of promoting misinformation about it has been assigned to the CIA and the Pentagon and the top brass of big Western media have been briefed about it.”
The Tasnim article continued, explaining why the Revolutionary Guards’ experts considered the story to be absurd. “If, as claimed, the plane had been hit with a missile, it would have exploded right there and then...But it did not happen that way...People who have the least amount of knowledge about how defense systems work know very well how absurd and illogical is the idea that the defense system would make an error and would attack a passenger airliner that is flying legally over the skies of a country after taking off from the airport.”
Tasnim also published an interview with Houshang Shahbazi, a veteran and well-known Iranian pilot, to prove this point. “I have been flying for 35 years,” Shahbazi told Tasnim. “Had the plane been hit, it would have disintegrated right in the sky and its pieces would have landed kilometers apart from each other...common sense says that we must think logically. There is no chance that this plane was hit by a missile.”
On the same day, Fars News Agency, another affiliate of the Revolutionary Guards, asked the opinion of Hasan Rezaeifar, head of the Civil Aviation Organization’s Accidents Investigation Commission, about a photograph that had been posted on social media showing a missile warhead in an area claimed to be near the crash site. “We officially deny this photo,” he said. “In the area of the accident we did not find any missile pieces.”
One day later, ignoring the video released of the missile hit on the plane that had been investigated and verified by the New York Times, Fars News Agency addressed the media outside Iran with the following words: “It is not a bad idea for counter-revolutionary and alien media that raise new questions and doubts using the pretext of interviewing experts to ask these same experts a question: Can a missile be launched from a city or anti-aircraft guns fire without anybody noticing and without any video being taken of it?”
On January 10, Nasim Online, yet another news agency affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, published an “exclusive” report by an “informed source” at Imam Khomeini Airport. “The plane had technical difficulties,” this anonymous source told the news agency. “According to an existing document, the Iranian engineer had refused to allow the plane to take off but the Ukrainian engineer did not agree and announced that ‘there is no problem and we will take off.’”
A published statement attributed to a “a group of specialists at the Iranian aerospace industry and aerospace engineering graduates from Sharif University of Technology” cited many reasons to deny the possibility that the Ukrainian airliner had been shot down by a missile. “If the plane...had been targeted it would have broken apart in the air and its pieces would have fallen kilometers apart from each other,” said the statement, echoing Iranian pilot Houshang Shahbazi’s statement, “whereas the videos clearly show that it was broken down by hitting the ground — because all the pieces are in one area.”
The statement went even further and presented a new theory: “In the last 15 years...Boeing 737 plane has had the highest number of deadly accidents...because of which, the company lost money, Boeing’s CEO was fired and its stocks fell. This last crash deals a harsher blow to this company. So, in this media war, they have tried to change the places of the murderer and the murdered and kick the ball into the court of the opposite side.”
On the same day, the hardliner daily Kayhan pushed this conspiracy theory even further. It published an article that said the horrified American officials who were in shock after the beating they received from the Revolutionary Guards’ missile attack on Ain al-Asad Airbase in Iraq were trying to restore their credibility through a psychological and media operation to pretend that the Ukrainian airliner was mistakenly shot down by a missile and, at the same time, reduce Boeing’s financial losses.
It is interesting that even on January 11, the same day that the Iranian government eventually conceded that the plane had been shot down by a Revolutionary Guards’ missile, a number of Iranian newspapers were still pushing conspiracy theories to explain what had happened. “One day after the crash of the Ukrainian Boeing 737 in Tehran, the stocks of Boeing airplane manufacturing company fell by more than four billion dollars on Wall Street and this makes it more clear why western media are giving prominence to the role of the missile in the downing of the plane,” analysis published in the newspaper Quds reported.
“Analysts believe that by putting on a fake juggling show about the downing of the Ukrainian plane by an Iranian missile, both Trump’s disgrace in Iraq has been overshadowed for a few days and Boeing was saved from bankruptcy,” an article in the newspaper of Astan Quds Razavi in Mashhad reported.
Then: “We did shoot down the plane, but...”
Finally, on January 11, after repeated denials by Iranian officials and official media, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic issued a statement and confessed that a missile from the Revolutionary Guards’ anti-aircraft battery had brought down the Ukrainian Boeing 737. The statement blamed an “unintentional human error” for firing the missile and promised that the person responsible would be referred to the armed forces’ judiciary organization, which would be taking legal action.
But even as it confessed to the missile attack on the plane, the statement also made highly questionable claims. For instance, it tried to justify the firing of missiles at the plane by claiming that “Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 took off from Imam Khomeini Airport and while turning it came very close to a sensitive Revolutionary Guards’ center at an altitude and a flight pattern that [identified it] as a hostile target.”
This claim was completely baseless, as the tracking data and graphs provided by the website Flight Radar 24, a Swedish internet-based service that maps real-time commercial aircraft flight tracking information, clearly showed that Flight 752 never turned or deviated from its assigned course.
Even Iran’s own Civil Aviation Organization did not support the claim made by the military’s General Staff. “According to information from Mehrabad Airport’s radar, as of now there is no evidence to prove that the plane...deviated from its flight path,” said the statement issued by the organization a few hours after the General Staff statement. It went on to complain that, prior to the military’s statement, it never received any information about the missile attack on the Ukrainian passenger plane, despite the organization’s efforts to gather information.
On the same day, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force, offered a new claim to justify the attack — and the veracity of this claim was questioned almost immediately. According to the general, the operator of the surface-to-air missile had mistaken the passenger jet for a cruise missile and had tried to contact his commander but “apparently his communication system was not working properly and he could not reach his commander. The reason, perhaps, was that the network was overloaded or it was jammed [as a result of electronic warfare] and he had at most 10 seconds to decide.”
The claim did not hold water. On January 10, in an interview with Forbes, Carlo Kopp, a defense analyst and cofounder of the think tank Air Power Australia, cited the technical specifications of the Russian-made Tor-M1 surface-to-air missiles that had brought down the Ukrainian passenger jet. He said that these missiles have “a maximum range of 7.5 miles” and added: “Given the slow speed of the 737, if the plane grazed the edge of the battery’s missile range, the operators would have had a decision window of one minute and 53 seconds. If it directly overflew the launcher, the soldiers would have had three minutes and 39 seconds.”
General Hajizadeh’s other claim, that perhaps the Americans had jammed the communication system, was rejected on January 20 during a meeting between military officials and members of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. At the end of the meeting — attended by the head of the Armed Forces General Staff’s Special Investigative Committee, a representative from the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force, the deputy commander of the armed forces, the head of the Civil Aviation Organization and the director of Imam Khomeini International Airport — Mojtaba Zolnoori, the chairman of the committee, reported that, although the possibility of cyber warfare was discussed “for the moment it has not been proven.”
Another fact ignored by military commanders in their statements was that the Ukrainian Boeing 737 was brought down not by one but by two missiles.
On January 14, the New York Times posted a new video that showed the Iranian military launched two missiles at the passenger jet in a period of around 30 seconds. This evidence clearly belies General Hajizadeh’s claim that the operator fired only one missile when he had no more than 10 seconds to decide.
More in the Series: