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Special Features

Iranians Demand Answers: Why Did the Guards Shoot the Passenger Plane Twice?

August 24, 2020
Faramarz Davar
8 min read
According to Iran’s aviation agency’s report on the black boxes for the downed Ukrainian plane, there were three members of the flight crew in the cockpit at the time of incident
According to Iran’s aviation agency’s report on the black boxes for the downed Ukrainian plane, there were three members of the flight crew in the cockpit at the time of incident
International Civil Aviation Regulations state that the crash site should have remained untouched until representatives for aircraft’s owner, manufacturer, and designer arrived on the scene
International Civil Aviation Regulations state that the crash site should have remained untouched until representatives for aircraft’s owner, manufacturer, and designer arrived on the scene

Passengers and crew aboard the downed Flight 752 were still alive after the first missile hit their plane on January 8, information released by the Islamic Republic has confirmed.

After months of avoiding public discussion about the details of the tragedy, Touraj Dehghani Zanganeh, the head of Iran's Civil Aviation Organization, finally provided a short statement about the incident on Sunday, August 23 on state television.

It comes 228 days after the Revolutionary Guards fired two missiles at Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 outside Tehran, knocking the plane out of the sky and killing all 176 people onboard. The Revolutionary Guards finally accepted responsibility for firing the missiles on January 11.

Dehghani Zanganeh quietly replaced Ali Abedzadeh as head of the Civil Aviation Authority after the crash and is on the US sanctions list for alleged weapons-smuggling as CEO of Meraj Airline. In a televised press conference, he said the black box recordings revealed a "conversation" between the three flight crew members in the plane’s cockpit after the first missile struck. He said they were aware the plane was in an "abnormal" situation after the first missile struck, and were trying to figure out what was happening while still keeping the plane in flight. 

Zanganeh added that the black boxes recorded sound in the plane’s cockpit for up to 19 seconds after the first missile was fired and exploded. The recordings from the black boxes do not contain any sounds from the passenger cabin, he said.  

Nineteen seconds after the first missile hits the plane, the recording of the sounds in the cockpit cuts out and information regarding the technical performance of the aircraft is no longer available. Zanganeh said the second missile struck the plane at least 25 seconds after the explosion of the first, but because of the intensity of the first strike there are no recordings on the black boxes specific to that moment.

He concluded by asking that the content of the black box recordings not be "politicized".

Demand for Answers


Horrified Iranians have taken to Twitter to ask for the answers government officials are still refusing to provide. Why was a second missile fired? On whose orders? What conversations took place between the three members of the flight crew and the control tower at Imam Khomeini Airport, and with the control tower at Tehran’s other airport, Mehrabad? What did they say in those few minutes on the runway, as the plane took off? After the first missile exploded, what did they say to one another and what did they say to the flight control tower staff?  

"Because no information was recorded on the black boxes," said Zanganeh, "no analysis has been obtained on the performance and effects of the second missile [shot by] the Revolutionary Guards."

It is likely that such an analysis would have been possible if the scene of the crash had remained undisturbed and the black boxes had been retrieved in a timely manner. But, in a clear violation of International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules, the wreckage was swiftly cleared on the scene by Islamic Republic officials.

According to ICAO rules, which Iran is obliged to follow as a signatory to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, a crash site should not be tampered with until the representatives of the owner, builder, and designer of the aircraft have arrived on the scene.


Will Iran Release the Details the World Wants to See? 

Information from both black boxes of the civilian plane shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is now available to Ukraine (the country that owns the aircraft), the United States (the aircraft manufacturer) and France (the designer of Boeing aircraft parts). These three countries at least will be aware if Iran does not truthfully report what the black box recordings have documented.

Under ICAO rules, the disclosure of details regarding air accidents is at the discretion of the country within which the accident occurred. For this reason, the Islamic Republic is overseeing the investigation into the crash - or, as Hamed Esmaelion, spokesman for the families of PS752 victims, put it, "the murderer is checking his own murder". 

If the information Iran makes public is incomplete or incorrect, Ukraine may enter into negotiations with Iran to persuade its leaders to provide accurate and full details. In the event of a possible refusal by the Islamic Republic, Ukraine reserves the right to file a complaint with the ICAO Council, to publish the recovered information on the black boxes and its analysis of its contents.

Fully aware of these rights and the dangers they could pose to the Islamic Republic’s credibility, Iranian officials have responded in typical defensive style. "This information is provided only for safety and to avoid similar incidents and any political use of this process would overshadow the process of dealing with the incident,” Zanganeh said in his statement.

Seven months and 15 days after the downing of the plane by the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its acceptance of its responsibility for the tragedy, it is still unclear why, on a day when Guards had targeted a US airbase in Iraq and likely expected a US counterattack, the country's airspace was not closed to civilian passenger planes. Who had the responsibility for that decision is still not known. It is also not clear who, if anyone, was arrested following the disaster, or what charges were brought against them.

Furthermore, there has been no response to the accusation that the Islamic Republic decided, by leaving Iranian airspace open, that it was prepared or use a passenger plane as a human shield against any US attacks. During the same tense period, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei held a gathering at his complex, and Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Commander Amir-Ali Hajizadeh has implicitly stated that this was organized to prevent a possible US attack on his office.   


Iran only admitted what had happened — that the Guards had fired missiles at an aircraft carrying civilians — and accepted responsibility following pressure from Ukraine and Canada. The reason for firing the second missile has never been officially announced, and the details of this second missile emerged later, following several reports and statements.

The Islamic Republic resisted attempts to retrieve the information on the plane's black boxes for more than six months, knowing that it did not have the technical expertise to retrieve the information itself. It blocked access to the recordings by either the relevant authorities as stated in ICAO regulations or the victims' families.

Recently, officials said compensation for the plane disaster should be paid by European insurance companies, eliciting an angry response from Ukraine. Officials then said they were ready to negotiate on how this compensation might be paid. 


"Devastated": Families Say They are No Closer to Finding Out the Truth

The tragedy of Flight 752 continues, and it stands as a devastating symbol of the Islamic Republic’s refusal to tell the truth, and a confirmation of its determination to manipulate reality. But the truth is being sought. The families of the victims have the right to pursue criminal justice and they plan exercise this right.

In a statement reacting to the press conference, the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims said: "This shameful display failed to resolve any of the existing concerns and questions that continue to be indicative of intentional deliberations for carrying out this missile attack."

Spokesman Hamed Esmaelion, who lost his wife and daughter in the attack, told IranWire: "The whole night, I was waiting for that press conference. I didn't sleep. I'm angry but sad as well; to have this report of just two paragraphs is ridiculous." He added that other families had been "devastated" by the official confirmation that their relatives were alive in the 19 seconds between the first and second missile strikes. "These are ordinary people. They have tried to calm themselves by thinking that when they attacked, everybody died instantly. We tried to change the mindset but most of the families were not ready for this horrible news. They can't hear this eight months after it happened."

The Association is demanding that Iran release the entire content of the black box recordings for public scrutiny, and the details of conversations between the plane and the airport control tower. They also want to know who was responsible for not clearing the skies of passenger aircraft, who ordered the attack, and why a second missile was fired at the plane - when, based on the content of the black boxes, the plane was in all likelihood trying to return to the airport.

"The black boxes are a red herring," Hamed said. "We have lots of questions that are important, but the black boxes won't answer them."

On Dehghani Zanganeh's request that the content of the boxes not be politicized, he said: "It wasn't a comment. It was a threat to the family members and to other governments. We've known this regime for 42 years; they have mocked all the international laws, even in the case of this crime, this mass murder of 176 people. 

"The families have no role in this investigation and no rights in the negotiation. As the biggest stakeholders in this crime, we should be involved."


Related Coverage: 

The Guards Used Khamenei's Audience as a Human Shield

Ukrainian Minister: Black Boxes on PS752 Show “Illegal Interference"

Families of PS752 Victims and Legal Experts Join Online Discussion on "Mockery of Justice"


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