By Hugo Princeland
After an initial denial and attempts to cover up, Iran, yesterday, under pressure, admitted that its armed forces “unintentionally” shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed last Wednesday, killing all 176 aboard.
The plane was shot down in the early hours, after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing United States troops in Iraq, in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad. No one was wounded in the attack on the bases.
A military statement carried by state media said the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military centre” of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its “highest level of readiness,” it said, amid heightened tensions with the United States.
“In such a condition, because of human error and in an unintentional way, the flight was hit,” the military said. It apologised and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies.
Those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted, the statement added.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy issued a statement, saying the crash investigation should continue and the “perpetrators” should be brought to justice. He said Iran should compensate victims’ families, and requested “official apologies through diplomatic channels.”
It was unclear whether Iran’s conventional forces or the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, shot down the plane.
According to Associated Press (AP), Iran’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders in the wake of Soleimani’s killing. Soleimani, the leader of the Guard’s elite Quds Force and the architect of Iran’s regional military interventions, was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians had turned out for funeral processions across the country.
The majority of the plane crash victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians. Iranian officials had denied culpability, dismissing such allegations as Western propaganda that officials said was offensive to the victims.
The crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests, ignited by a hike in gasoline prices. Iran has been in the grip of a severe economic crisis since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani blamed the accident partly on “threats and bullying” by the United States after the killing of Soleimani. He expressed condolences to families of the victims, and called for a “full investigation” and the prosecution of those responsible.
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
The U.S. and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile.