Iran absolves its armed forces in final report on downing of Ukrainian plane

Civil aviation agency withholds key details, again claims human error caused missiles to be fired at aircraft, killing 176; Ukraine derides ‘cynical attempt to hide true causes’

Debris litters the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)
Debris litters the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

After a yearlong investigation, Iran’s civil aviation agency on Wednesday released its final report on the crash of a Ukrainian passenger plane that killed 176 people last year, revealing no new details about the shootdown that has provoked outrage from affected countries and concerns from UN investigators.

Following three days of denial in January 2020 in the face of mounting evidence, Iran finally acknowledged that its forces mistakenly downed the Ukrainian jetliner with two surface-to-air missiles. In preliminary reports on the disaster last year, Iranian authorities blamed an air defense operator who they said mistook the Boeing 737-800 for an American cruise missile.

At the time, the US and Iran were teetering on the edge of war. An American drone strike had killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad and Iran retaliated with ballistic missiles at American bases in Iraq. Several hours after the missile strike, an air defense operator on high alert outside Tehran opened fire on the commercial plane shortly after take-off because of an error in his radar system, Iran said.

The country’s long-awaited final report, which foreign governments and victims’ families hoped would shed more light on the mysterious downing, came to the same cryptic conclusion while absolving the armed forces.

“The accident aircraft was misidentified by the air defense unit in the suburbs of Tehran and, consequently, two missiles were launched toward it,” the report said. “The operation of aircraft had not imposed any error to the air defense unit.”

The 146-page investigation includes details about the timeline of events and analysis of aircraft debris, but does not identify culprits in the shootdown, explain how the chain of command broke down, answer why authorities decided to keep civilian airspace open as regional tensions soared or respond to other key questions.

Flowers and candles are placed in front of portraits of the flight crew members of the Ukrainian 737-800 plane that crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, at a memorial inside Borispil international airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, January 11, 2020. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Ukraine, which lost 11 citizens in the disaster, immediately dismissed the report.

“Ukraine has earlier sent Iran more than 90 pages of remarks and proposals to its draft final report and insisted on Iran including them into the final document,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement.

“However, what we saw published today is just a cynical attempt to hide true causes of the downing of our passenger aircraft.”

Iran’s official explanation has left investigators and aviation experts unconvinced, with Canada’s special adviser to the prime minister calling Iran’s narrative “difficult to accept” and lacking in proof. Last month, Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, went further. She called the series of alleged mistakes “unreasonable” and said Iran’s “multiple claims and stories create a maximum of confusion.”

In her report, the result of a six-month investigation, Callamard said she had not found concrete evidence that Iran had intentionally shot down the plane full of its own citizens. However, she said, the “reckless” nature of the mistakes and “inconsistencies” in Iran’s official explanation “have led many to question whether the downing of Flight PS752 was not intentional.”

“One may even question whether there was an order or implicit encouragement by the chain of command,” she wrote, “to apply lethal force without going through standard procedures and precautionary steps.”

People and rescue teams amid bodies and debris after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers that was accidentally shot down by Iranian forces near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran, January 8, 2020. (Rouhollah Vahdati/ISNA/AFP)

Iran swiftly pushed back, with foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh lambasting Callamard’s report as “immature” and her input as “unwarranted.” Iran insists the downing was a tragic mistake.

Compounding concerns over Iran’s credibility, outspoken families of victims in Canada have reported harassment by Iranian authorities, ranging from hateful messages and threatening phone calls to suspicious cars tailing them at vigils. Canada has confirmed its police are investigating cases of “harassment, intimidation and foreign interference” in the country.

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