DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The Ukrainian jetliner stood ready for takeoff at Iran’s main international airport bound for Kyiv, packed with passengers and so many bags on one of the cheapest routes to the West that the ground crew rushed to unload some luggage to make its weight for flight.
Nearly an hour late, Tehran air traffic controllers finally cleared Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 for takeoff, carrying a newlywed couple, Iranian students bound for universities in Canada and others seeking a better life abroad.
The plane would be shot down only minutes later by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
Up until the moment soldiers fired missiles at the Boeing 737-800, Iran had faced decisive moments on how to respond to the world around it amid tensions with the US. Those decisions ultimately doomed the flight and all 176 people aboard, and also led to the public being “lied to” for days afterward, in the words of the country’s foreign minister.
What Iran decided then and later also reflects beyond the immediate tragedy, offering a glimpse inside of the country more than 40 years after its Islamic Revolution.
The downing of the jetliner highlights the limits of the civilian arm of Iran’s government against the absolute power held by the nation’s Shiite theocracy and the paramilitary forces beneath it. The anger that followed shows the choices Iranians make in the country’s sanctions-crushed economy and the unabated rage still lurking on its streets.
How Iran responds as a whole will affect a coming year that appears poised for further tensions. Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers hangs on a single thread, one that permits international inspection of its atomic sites and is already threatened. US President Donald Trump, facing an impeachment trial and an election campaign, promises to impose ever-harsher sanctions. Meanwhile, more economic protests in Iran remain a threat as well.
“The regime understands that Iranian society is a powder keg right now and that if it’s not careful, it’ll lose control of the situation really quickly,” said Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran analyst at the US-based RAND Corp. “So, it’s using every tool at its disposal to avoid losing control.”
The fight and the flight
Even before Trump entered the White House, he campaigned on a promise to tear up Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. That agreement saw Tehran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Reached under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, the deal kept Iran’s atomic program under constant surveillance by international inspectors and unable to produce enough material for a nuclear bomb if Tehran sought one.
Trump, however, unilaterally withdrew America from the arrangement in May 2018, saying it didn’t go far enough in limiting Iran’s program, its ballistic missile stockpile and its influence through proxies in the wider Middle East.
Iran waited a year before beginning to break limits of the accord, each move slightly narrowing the estimated year it would need to have enough fissionable material for a nuclear weapon. Tehran insists it doesn’t seek an atomic bomb, although the UN nuclear watchdog says evidence shows the Islamic Republic once had an organized weapons program that it ultimately abandoned — as far as international inspectors could determine — in 2003. Israeli, American and other officials have also noted the scale and capabilities of Iran’s program are too large for research purposes and too small for energy production, and are therefore intended to preserve the capacity to resume its weapons program.
Through the summer, tensions steadily rose with mysterious oil tanker attacks that the US blamed on Iranian mines, as well as drone and missile assaults on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. Iran denied involvement in those assaults, although it did acknowledge shooting down a US military surveillance drone and seizing tankers.
Then came the December death of a US contractor in Iraq, followed by an American airstrike on Iranian-backed forces allegedly behind the attack. Iranian-backed militias violently protested and attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The crisis reached a fever pitch January 3 as a US drone strike in Baghdad killed the prominent Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani, who oversaw Iran’s proxies in the region. Trump later threatened to bomb 52 sites in Iran, including those “important to the Iranian culture” if Tehran retaliated.
Iran vowed revenge, and early on January 8 it launched ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing American troops, causing injuries but no fatalities among soldiers there. Iranian officials informally warned journalists and others that any American retaliation would bring missile strikes on Dubai and Haifa in Israel.
Yet commercial planes kept flying through Iranian airspace. Before the Ukrainian jetliner, nine other flights left Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. The airplane was delayed nearly an hour to remove luggage from the overweight flight, investigators say.
Some have questioned how the flight could even be allowed to take off, as the Guard insists it suggested commercial aircraft be grounded amid the tensions.
But Iran isn’t alone, as the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight No. 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 shows. Pakistan remains the sole recent country to close its airspace over the risk of war as it did in 2019 amid tensions with India.
“Countries cannot be relied upon to close risky airspace, nor issue damaging guidance on their own territories,” wrote Mark Zee, the founder of the air-safety organization OPSGROUP. “Governments have more pressing motivations: Trade, tourism, commerce. This will not change.”
Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 took off at 6:12 a.m. Its flaming wreckage would fall from the sky only six minutes later.
‘Recipe for disaster’
Just northwest of the airport, a Revolutionary Guard base among Tehran’s arid foothills hid so-called coffin launchers — ballistic missiles tilting skyward. Defending that base was at least one Tor-M1 anti-aircraft system, a Russian-made tracked vehicle whose spinning radar detected the flight. Its turret turned toward the flight, a secondary radar now tracking to get its position.
An operator inside would be able to see the flight as a blip on its radar screen, showing its speed and altitude. Commercial airliners broadcast their location by transponder, but it remains unclear what information those in the Tor had, said Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly. It’s also unclear if jamming or some sort of communications breakdown affected the troops’ thinking.
What is clear, however, is that the Guard, known for its aggression in confronting US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, controlled that area’s air defense. Iranian forces already stood at a high-alert level, fearful of American retaliation for the ballistic missile strike on the Iraqi bases housing US troops hours earlier.
And that Tor unit, with an effective range of 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), fired one missile at its maximum distance toward the aircraft, according to a later briefing by the Guard. Surveillance video later obtained by The Associated Press showed that the missile streaked across the darkened sky and exploded.
The missile went off like a massive shotgun shell, pelting the airliner with a cloud of shrapnel. A piece of the fuselage and the cockpit later recovered showed its windows smashed and the metal scorched.
Ten seconds after the first explosion, the Tor crew fired another missile. It struck near the plane, which turned into a ball of flames before crashing in the rural town of Shahedshahr.
“You can see how guys at that level of autonomy, high tensions and not clearing these civilian aircraft out of the airspace is a recipe for disaster,” Binnie said. “They just can’t go on like that.”
Days of denials
The Guard, answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, knew their missiles downed the flight when news broke of the crash. It remains unclear when they told Khamenei.
The 80-year-old cleric has final say on all state matters, faces no real check on his power and hasn’t commented publicly on what he knew when.
But air-crash investigators, Iranian diplomats and others strongly denied that a missile shot down Flight 752, even as images from the crash site showed shrapnel damage to the plane and one image appeared to show the remains of a Tor-fired missile.
The head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzadeh, also mocked comments by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US officials saying they believed a missile brought down the plane.
“Scientifically speaking, their statements are not valid at all,” Abedzadeh said.
The next day, Iran’s regular armed forces announced that the Guard “unintentionally” downed the aircraft as “a result of human error.” Iranian officials apologized, with at least two of the Guard’s top commanders publicly saying they wish they had died. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went as far as to say the Iranian public “were lied to” for days.
But comments by Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani suggest Iran’s leaders initially knew nothing about the Guard shooting down the aircraft.
“It’s highly likely that most, if not all of the Rouhani government, were not aware of the same facts that were available to senior members” within the Guard, said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior fellow focusing on Iran at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
This split in power between Iran’s civilian government and the theocracy has been on display since 1988, when then-prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi resigned. In a letter to then-president Khamenei, Mousavi criticized foreign policy and “extraterritorial operations” that took place “without the knowledge and orders of the government.”
“There is talk everywhere about the foreign policy of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, without the government knowing about these policies that are mentioned everywhere in the country and the world,” Mousavi wrote. “After an airplane is hijacked, we get news about it. When a gun is fired in the streets of Lebanon, and the word gets around everywhere, we become aware of the situation. After explosives are found on our pilgrims in Jiddah, I learn about this affair.”
Mousavi added: “Unfortunately, despite all the harm and damage that these actions have caused the country, still operations similar to these can take place in the name of the government at any second and any hour.”
This time, however, the operation saw Iranians killed inside the country itself by those supposed to be protecting them.
What comes next
Iran put down street protests by students and others over the downing of the flight. But those demonstrations pale in comparison to recent unrest faced by Iran, particularly protests over government-set gasoline prices spiking in November. That unrest saw at least 300 people killed, according to Amnesty International.
While an earlier round of nationwide economic protests struck at the end of 2017, things only have gotten worse with the sanctions re-imposed on the country by Trump withdrawing from the nuclear deal, particularly those blocking Iran from selling crude oil abroad. Without that crucial source of government funding, Iran’s government struggles to make ends meet.
So far, Trump’s administration has vowed to continue its maximum pressure campaign on Tehran. Trump himself has used the killing of Soleimani, whom he described as a “terrorist monster,” as part of his stump speeches at campaign rallies.
“With Iran losing as much as $4 billion in revenue every month due to US energy sanctions, it will not be easy for Tehran to hold out for the possibility of a new US president being elected in November 2020,” wrote Niamh McBurney, an analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.
Meanwhile, Britain, France and Germany instituted the so-called dispute mechanism of Iran’s unraveling nuclear deal, opening the possibility of international and UN sanctions returning.
“My sense is that basically the Islamic Republic currently is a pressure cooker,” Geranmayeh said. “We will have periodic and probably escalatory … protests in the country. A lot of what happens depends on how the security apparatus responds to these protests.”
However, any major threat to the government could see the Guard employ the same bloody tactics it used in Syria’s long war.
“If there is a similar threat to their own power inside Iran as Bashar Assad faced, my sense is that they will use an infinitely more amount of force to push back to secure their own power,” Geranmayeh said.
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