Iran announced Saturday that its military “unintentionally” shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week outside Tehran, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible. The Iranian president called the incident a “disastrous mistake.”
The plane was shot down early Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing US troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad. No one was wounded in the attack on the bases.
A military statement carried by Iranian state media said the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military center” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The military was at its “highest level of readiness,” it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States.
“In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit,” the statement said. It apologized for the disaster and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent such “mistakes” in the future.
It also said those responsible for the strike on the plane would “immediately” face military justice.
“We assure you that by pursuing fundamental reforms in operational processes at the armed forces’ level we will make it impossible to repeat such errors,” the general staff added in a press release.
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.
Iran had denied for several days that a missile caused the crash. But then the US and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lower the nation’s death toll from 63.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”
“Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.
A sad day. Preliminary conclusions of internal investigation by Armed Forces:
Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster
Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 11, 2020
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted that “investigations continue to identify & prosecute this great tragedy & unforgivable mistake.”
Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people.
Investigations continue to identify & prosecute this great tragedy & unforgivable mistake. #PS752
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) January 11, 2020
Rouhani said that Tehran “deeply regrets this disastrous mistake” and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the country’s armed forces to address “shortcomings.”
Iran had denied on Friday that it was responsible for the crash.
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 on January 3. The general was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians had turned out for funeral processions across the country in an unprecedented display of grief and unity.
But sentiments in Iran are still raw over the government’s crackdown on large-scale protests late last year sparked by the worsening economic situation. Several hundred protesters were reported to have been killed in the clampdown.
Those fissures could quickly break open again following the admission of responsibility for the deaths of 176 mainly Iranian and dual Iranian-Canadian citizens.
Iran at first said it would not allow Boeing to take part in the probe, going against prevailing international norms on crash investigations. It later invited the US accident-investigating agency to take part in the investigation.
US, Canadian and British officials said Thursday it was “highly likely” that Iran shot down the the aircraft.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “we have intelligence from multiple sources including our allies and our own intelligence.”
The US officials did not say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile, believed to be fired by a Russian Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15. But they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication interceptions and other similar intelligence.
Iranian officials initially said the plane appeared to have crashed because of technical difficulties.
A preliminary Iranian investigative report released Thursday said that the airliner pilots never made a radio call for help and that the aircraft was trying to turn back to the airport when the burning plane went down.
The Iranian report suggested that a sudden emergency struck the plane just minutes after taking off.
“This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission,” said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash.
“I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face,” he said.