More than two weeks have passed since Iran admitted to downing the Ukraine International Boeing 737. The plane crashed near Tehran on January 8, just minutes after departing from a local airport.
All 176 people aboard were killed. Among them, there were 11 Ukrainians, as well as 82 citizens of Iran, 63 Canadians, 10 Swedes, 4 Afghanis, 3 each from Germany and the United Kingdom.
France and Ukraine have joined the Iran-Canada investigation. Tehran claims to have already detained the suspects. However, it still refuses to transfer the onboard recorders for decoding to other countries.
Hromadske looked into the process of the investigation, what is already known, what questions remain and whether the perpetrators will be punished.
Who and Why Downed the Plane
Iran admitted that the Boeing had been hit by an Iranian missile on January 11. The plane was allegedly mistaken for a hostile object.
Later, on January 21, the Iran Civil Aviation Organization released a report outlining how the plane was shot down. Two land-to-air missiles fired from the anti-aircraft missile system "Tor-M1" hit the Boeing. This complex is manufactured in Russia.
On the eve of the disaster, Tehran fired ballistic missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq in response to the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani carried out by the United States on January 3.
On the day of the attack on the Ukrainian Boeing, the Iranian military allegedly noticed the activity of U.S. military aircraft around its borders, as well as the air targets that were apparently moving toward the Iranian military objects. As a consequence, Iran's air defense was brought to full alert.
The Ukrainian plane was allegedly confused with a military target after it, having taken off from Tehran airport, turned in the direction of the base of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Thousands took to the streets across Iran in the aftermath of the crash. It was mostly the youth that protested, as many of the protesters knew the people killed in the disaster personally. The demonstrators accused the authorities of hiding the truth, and even a few anchors quit their jobs on local television channels in protest.
Eventually, the IRGC did claim responsibility for the downed Boeing. IRGC commander Hossein Salami even said he would have liked to be aboard the downed plane to die with his compatriots.
The IRGC is a military-political structure that operates in parallel with the Iranian army. General Soleimani was also a commander of the IRGC Special Forces, whose killing by the U.S. military resulted in the escalation. The IRGC, among other things, has its own air force and aerospace forces.
Which Weapon Brought Down the Plane
The official explanation as to how and what brought down the Ukrainian plane raised questions -- in particular, about the weapons from which the Boeing was shot down.
The short-range missiles, which include the “Tor” officially mentioned by Tehran, are designed to hit air targets in a radius of about 12 km and at altitudes up to 6 km. They are in fact bought from Russia and used by the IRGC.
At the same time, experts questioned by hromadske disagree on whether it is possible to bring down such a large passenger plane with the “Tor-M1”.
Mykhailo Lyuksikov, editor of the online edition of the Ukrainian Military Portal, says that the complex can ascend up to six kilometers, whilst the plane only managed to gain an altitude of 2 km:
"The aircraft was at an altitude attainable for this system; “Tor-M1” itself was nearby and, accordingly, covered some facilities in Tehran. Therefore, it looks like a recognition error on the part of the operators."
However, military expert Mykhailo Zhyrokhov does not agree with the official version.
"The specification of "Tor-M1" states that in the middle hemisphere, it operates a range of 12 kilometers. So either the firing point was closer or another weapon was used,” he says.
The “Tor-M1” is not considered a large air defense, and it is very difficult to shoot down a large airliner with two such missiles. According to the expert, military planes are easier to bring down than Boeings. In order to take down a passenger plane from the “Tor-M1”, it is necessary for the rocket to hit the cabin directly.
Doubts could be dispelled if Iran provided important parts of the aircraft to Ukrainian or other international experts. But currently, only the smaller ones are demonstrated which renders it difficult to determine the type of weapons from which the Boeing was shot.
"With MH17 (shot down over the Donbas in 2014 -- ed.) -- large pieces of wings and fuselage were shown, whereas the Iranians deny us access here," says Zhyrokhov.
Emergency workers walk among the wreckage of a UIA plane carrying 176 people that crashed near Tehran Airport; January 8, 2020. EPA-EFE / ABEDIN TAHERKENARE
Did Ukrainian Authorities Know That the Plane Was Shot Down?
Initially, on January 8, the Embassy of Ukraine in Iran stated that an engine failure occurred on the plane -- a version of a terrorist attack or a rocket attack was ruled out. However, the statement very soon disappeared from the website, instead, another message appeared: "Information on the causes of the plane crash is currently being investigated by the commission. Any statements regarding the causes of the accident before the commission’s decision are not official.”
Volodymyr Zelenskyy instructed the Prosecutor General to investigate the disaster, and stated that all civilian aviation should be checked for airworthiness.
At the same time, the version that the Ukrainian plane in Tehran was shot down by an Iranian rocket was already brought up by the leaders of the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada on January 9. Justin Trudeau even briefed on the issue, and The New York Times published a video showing an alleged Iranian rocket hitting the Ukrainian plane.
Iran strongly denied the allegations at the time. But when Iran did admit the guilt, it turned out that Ukraine allegedly already had evidence that the plane was hit by an Iranian missile. Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov said that such information came from Ukrainian experts who went to the scene of the disaster. However, to avoid them being sent home immediately, Kyiv decided not to disclose data until sufficient evidence was obtained.
And as President Zelenskyy explained in an interview with Israel’s Channel 9, Ukraine did not state immediately that the plane had been shot down by Iranian military precisely because of the lack of evidence, even though it became known the day after the crash.
“I could not say publicly 'We were shot down', but I came to them (to the relatives of the dead - ed.) and said: 'Apart from condolences, I came to you with important information. I want you to know for sure that this is 100% not a technical mistake, not a mistake of your relatives, nor a mistake of our professional crew,” he said.
According to Zelenskyy, Ukraine “has taken several important steps” to push Iran to plead guilty. And a Canadian journalist Michael Colborne believes that it was competent diplomacy.
“It may seem that the protests in Iran have influenced the investigation in some way. However, I think that the biggest pressure was put through diplomatic channels, especially by Ukraine. It demonstrates how complicated diplomacy can be, how far-sighted the country must be and how consciously it has to act,” Colborne told Hromadske.
He believes that Ukraine was right not to openly pressure Iran although Kyiv was aware of the true causes of the plane crash.
READ MORE: State Ceremony Marks Return of Ukrainian PS752 Victims to Ukraine
"It reads like this: 'Of course, we know that you shot down our plane, but we don't think it was intentional, because we were already dealing with a downed MH17. You just have to tell the truth,” Colborne said.
Farewell ceremony attended by relatives, friends and well-wishers of the victims of the PS752 downing at the Boryspil airport in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
Who's Investigating the Crash?
The same day that Iran pleaded guilty, an International Coordination and Response Group led by the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne was set up.
The Security Service of Ukraine launched an investigation into three articles of the Criminal Code on January 13: violation of traffic safety rules or operation of air transport, premeditated murder, and intentional destruction or damage to property.
Five countries whose citizens were killed in the crash – Ukraine, Canada, Sweden, Afghanistan, and the United Kingdom – made a joint statement on January 16 urging Iran not to interfere with the investigation.
Who Was Arrested by Iran?
Iran has announced that it had already arrested "those responsible" for the downed Ukrainian plane. However, it has not been disclosed who these people are and how many of them there are. But it is certain that the person who filmed the moment of the crash and posted it is among them.
The American media were quick to criticize this decision. “The regime’s real agenda here is exposed by the fact that it has also arrested someone for posting film of the missiles hitting the plane to the Internet. It’s entirely possible that heroic action is what forced Tehran to own up to the atrocity, after days of denying it could be at fault,” the New York Post wrote in its editorial.
The Iranian outlet Isna, citing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, on January 25, reported that a man responsible for mistakenly shooting down the Ukrainian plane was already in prison, but did not specify who the person was.
What About the Flight Recorders?
Despite Iran pleading guilty and its willingness to cooperate for an effective investigation, the following question remains: Why does Iran -- allegedly having nothing more to hide -- not hand over the onboard flight recorders of the downed plane?
Over the last two weeks, Iran's stance on the issue has changed several times.
First, after the crash, the Iran Civil Aviation Organization announced that it would deal with the decryption, but would allow Ukrainian experts to be present during the procedure.
On the eve of its decision to admit guilt, Tehran said that the onboard recorders were "very damaged", so if Iranian and Ukrainian experts could not obtain information from them, they would be handed over to experts from France or Canada. Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Emmanuel Macron agreed that France would help with the decryption on January 11.
Since January 15, the Prosecutor General's Office of Ukraine has requested Tehran to hand over the black boxes to Ukraine three times. Despite a statement by the head of the Iran Civil Aviation Organization's Department of Accident Investigation Hassan Rezaeifar that the recorders would be sent to Ukraine, no progress has been made. The very next day after the statement, Iran denied it. Instead, Tehran announced the visit of a delegation of Iranian experts to check Ukraine's "technical capabilities" to decipher the records.
This has caused concern not only for the Ukrainian side. Canadian Foreign Minister Champagne called on Iran to "send the recorders to Ukraine or France as soon as possible" for analysis. Canada, whose 63 citizens were killed in the crash, has pledged to "put pressure on Iran" so that it would quickly hand over the flight recorders.
"We recognize that the black boxes are key to the investigation and there are rules around making sure that they are analyzed quickly and properly in cases such as these. It is not simply a question of having the right experts in place to analyze the black boxes. There is a question of significant technological requirements in order to do that; that cannot be done in Iran; that cannot be established in Iran. That is why we have been calling upon Iran to release the black boxes to a reliable third country that has the technological and personnel technological capacity and the personnel to properly analyze those boxes. There has been broad consensus in there in the international community that France would be the right place to send those boxes. But we continue to pressure Iran to do just that," said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Iran Civil Aviation Organization's report on the crash as of January 20 read that Iran was unable to decipher the black boxes from a downed plane on its own, and France and the United States have refused to provide it with the decryption equipment.
On January 21, the Iranian delegation actually visited Kyiv. Experts from France and Canada were also present at the meeting. Now the Iranian side should decide whether to hand over the black boxes to Ukraine or not.
Will the Perpetrators Be Held Accountable?
After the Ukraine International Boeing crash, Ukrainian and foreign media have drawn parallels with the downed Malaysian MH17 flight that was shot down over the Donbas in 2014. At first, as another example of another crash that probably wouldn’t be investigated anytime soon. And later Iran's admission of guilt was juxtaposed with the behavior of Russia who, despite all evidence available from the Joint Investigation Team, dismisses all charges.
Colborne is optimistic about the prospects of investigating the UIA’s Boeing crash. At the same time, he says, one can’t force the investigation to be done quicker. For instance, Canada won’t be able to pressure Iran because it has no diplomatic relations with it.
“I think there is a much better chance to learn the truth than in the situation with MH17. I am not sure that this investigation will be easy and transparent enough in the full sense of the word, but at the same time I do not think that in five years we will talk about it the way we are talking about the MH17 now,” Colborne said.
/By Lena Kurenkova