The Iran Air Defense Forces brought down the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 (Flight PS752) near Tehran due to “a human error”, the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces said in an official statement on January 11. The statement denounced the previous Iranian main version that the tragedy was a result of a technical malfunction.
The data provided in the statement of the General Staff, and the press conference of the Head of the Aerospace Division of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) provide the following chain of events:
- At approximate 23:00 UTC, on January 7, the IRGC carried out a missile strike on US military targets in Iraq;
- The country’s air defense network was on highest alert amid reports on a possible cruise missile strike by the United States and increased flights of US warplanes near Iranian airspace;
- At 2:38 UTC, January 8, the PS752 took off from Imam Khomeini International Airport and moved close to a “sensitive” facility of the IRGC “when completing a loop”. The aircraft reportedly deviated from the general PS752 course for around 2km;
- The altitude and the direction of the flight’s movement “were like an enemy target”. The surface-to-air missile system operator mistakenly identified as the plane as an incoming “cruise missile” 19km away;
- The missile system operator acted independently because of a failure in the communication system;
- The operator then “took the wrong decision” of firing on the perceived threat in a “ten-second” time span to shoot or ignore the flying object. During the night, the operator repeatedly called for a halt in flights in the area. This was not done.
- A “short-range missile” exploded next to the plane. After this, the plane continued flying for a while, and “exploded when it hit the ground.” The Iranian side did not mention the missile system used. Supposedly, it was the Tor low to medium altitude, short-range surface-to-air missile system.
Thus, Iran described the situation with the Boeing as a result of the combination of aforementioned factors in the “atmosphere of threats and intimidation by the aggressive American regime against the Iranian nation”. Nonetheless, the real picture of events may have been different.
It remains unclear how the Boeing 737-800 may have been mistaken for an incoming cruise missile, especially taking into account that this situation developed near the capital’s working airport. If one takes this explanation with a grain of salt, the scenario could have been the following.
The plane experienced some technical difficulties during or immediately after the take-off and deviated from the course moving closer to the IRGC military site. The information appeared that the preflight inspection checklist was not signed by Iranian airport engineers, but the Ukrainian side insisted to fly at its own risk and responsibility.
Therefore, the system operator, that experienced a communication failure, considered the plane as a ‘military threat’ because it may have been hijacked for a 9/11-style attack, got under control via a cyber-attack and/or used as a cover for a pinpoint missile strike on the IRGC site.
This version does not explain how the communication failure could appear at the air defense post that must have two shielded communication channels: primary tactical circuit and the alternative. The possible explanation with an electronic warfare attack does not hold up against criticism civilian communication channels remained operational with routine flights continuing from the Tehran airport. Another factor is the video of the missile hit that appeared online. How this person, could have known when and what exactly to film without advance knowledge of the developments?
Then, there is one more explanation: The plane was shot down deliberately to exert additional pressure on Iran from the United States during the alleged acute phase of the crisis between Iran and the United States, which had a chance to develop into open regional war. In the framework of this version, it could be suspected that the operator may have been recruited by US intelligence or blackmailed, or the system was captured in an act of sabotage by the US or its affiliated forces.
Regardless the existing gaps in the current official version of the events and the real course of the developments, Iran will and further be forced to claim that the airliner shootdown was a “human error”. Iran can ill-afford to admit the lack of control over key objects of military infrastructure in the heart of the country.