After months of delay, the Islamic Republic has released the final technical report on the plane crash disaster of January 2020, when Revolutionary Guards shot down Ukrainian International Flight PS752 with 176 passengers and crew on board. The report is published in both Persian and English and runs a total of 285 pages. Prior to publication, it was made publicly available to Ukraine, Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom, whose nationals were killed in the tragedy along with Iranian nationals.
Ukraine's foreign minister called the report "unilateral", "selective" and "deceitful", and Canada's foreign and transport ministers called it "incomplete".
However, the report contains points that the Islamic Republic has not raised or referred to in the 14 months since the downing of the plane. At the same time, it fails to answer some key questions.
The report, by the Air Accident Investigation Office of the National Aviation Organization of Iran, part of the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, provides a technical description of the factors behind the crash of the Ukrainian plane. It states that it does not seek to blame any institution and has published the report to clarify the truth and in accordance with the duty of the Government of the Islamic Republic and its obligations to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
The air accident report sets out to answer two basic questions: the cause of the accident and how such a tragedy can be prevented from happening again.
The report removes the responsibility for the disaster entirely from government aviation institutions, stating that the Civil Aviation Authority and the Ukrainian Aircraft Flight Group were not at fault for the disaster, and implicitly blames the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, claiming that the key cause of the tragedy was a series of human errors by the military sector (meaning the Revolutionary Guards).
Prior to the tragedy, the mobile air defense unit of the Revolutionary Guards launched a missile at a United States air base in Iraq in retaliation for the assassination of Quds Force Commander Ghasem Soleimani on January 3. The Iranian unit had been stationed at a secret military base in the Bidganeh area of Tehran province, where a senior Guards commander and the base’s missile development officer had been killed in a horrific explosion a few years earlier.
The report by Iran's Air Accident Bureau says the defense unit was not responsible for identifying targets and was only tasked with acting on Central Defense Unit’s orders and in accordance with pre-determined instructions.
It makes the surprising claim that the defense system was not deployed in an appropriate geographical direction to identify all aircraft accurately from all angles, which is why it identified the Ukrainian plane flying from the runway to the west of the country at a low altitude as a bird heading southwest toward the center of Tehran.
After this assessment, the official report claims, the operating unit of the Revolutionary Guards contacted the Central Defense authorities about the as yet unidentified potential target, but the message was not transmitted to the command center. The Revolutionary Guards’ air defense operator fired at the target, which ended up being a passenger plane. It is not clear why the operator decided not to wait for a response from the command center.
A Shift in Military Focus but no Further Protections in Place
According to the Air Accident Office of the Civil Aviation Organization of Iran, the Ukrainian plane took off from the runway in Tehran at 6:12 AM and the first missile shot exploded at 6:14 AM near the plane. Based on the audio recordings from the cockpit, the flight crew was alive and trying to control the critical situation following the blast. But then a second missile landed near the plane at 6:15 AM.
With an extremely rapid increase in damage and breakdown in the aircraft, about three minutes after the explosion of the second Guards-fired missile, the plane, decreasing its altitude, passed through the residential area of Khalajabad and collided with the roof of a pavilion in an amusement park called Laleh. The fuselage then struck the ground and, after passing through a football field, completely disintegrated and spread to surrounding fields and gardens.
The Iranian government report states that shifts in the military situation regarding Islamic Republic airspace had been obvious from 2:40 AM on January 8, 2020, less than four hours before the downing of the plane. Authorities in both Iran and the United States had been made aware of the origin of the operations against the American air base in Iraq by then, and it prompted a significant change in Iranian military focus.
The report adds that in accordance with the implementation of safety measures to prevent the recurrence of such a catastrophe, the Civil Aviation Organization has reached an agreement with military institutions, and implementation began on December 3, 2020. The matter has been reported to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the report says.
Whatever insight the report does give it fails to answer 10 key questions:
1. Why did Iran fail to close down the country's airspace for civilian aircraft at a time when there was a risk of a US military counterattack? Why did the Revolutionary Guards’ Air Force Commander make this decision?
2. Contrary to what is mentioned in the report, the authorities, namely the military and governmental institutions of Iran and the United States, were aware of the missile being sent from Iran. So why were civilian flights allowed to continue during the hours when there was the greatest danger to the lives of passengers?
3. Why was there a failure in communication between the defense unit that carried out the deadly shootings and the senior military officials and institutions that ultimately bear responsibility for the tragedy?
4. Who made the fatal mistake in setting the geographical orientation of the firing defense system, and what is the verifiable evidence to support Iran's claim of a geographical orientation error?
5. To what level are the forces operating in the defense unit trained, and what measures have been taken to train other Revolutionary Guards’ defense operators to prevent similar deadly incidents?
6. The published report clearly shows that from the first hours after the downing of the plane, Islamic Republic government officials had proven the plane had been targeted by the military by observing fragments from the crash, including traces of shrapnel, as well as residual fuel caused by the explosion. Why did authorities deny what happened for three days? Why did senior officials from the Civil Aviation Authority conceal the truth about the tragedy?
7. Why did the government and Iranian military force personnel clear the crash site with such haste, in contravention of the country’s obligations regarding protocols on post-crash procedures? Furthermore, instead of supporting the loved ones of the victims of Flight PS752, why did authorities further abuse and harass them, and in some cases detain and threaten them, including with rape in prison?
8. Why were possessions belonging to the passengers not given to their families? Iran’s official report is in stark contrast with that of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial and arbitrary killings, which states, among other points, that passengers' belongings were tampered with or looted. Iran's official report says a significant amount of the property, which has emotional value for the surviving families, was found intact on the crash site, but the reason to withhold these belongings from the families has not been clarified.
9. Despite similar dangers and the high probability of a conflict in Iran's airspace since the downing of this aircraft, why has the Islamic Republic failed to step up safety measures to protect passengers? The government pledged to secure a safer airspace and yet, it only took action in December 2020, nearly a year after the tragedy. At any rate, it simply put in place the same minimal measures that had existed before the disaster, measures that were clearly insufficient to protect people.
10. Finally, the Islamic Republic’s official report is incomplete, saying nothing about the real reason the civilian plane was shot down or about the evidence it had used to take the decision it did. Why?
The report is presented as having two aims: explaining the disaster and setting out how authorities will prevent a similar future catastrophe. It does neither.