In a stunning admission that caps off a truly dark week for Iran, the country said it shot down the 737 which crashed outside the capital Wednesday, shortly after the IRGC concluded strikes against US targets in Iraq.
“Iran’s armed forces went on high alert following US threats to target Iranian sites”, the army said in the statement, an apparent allusion to Donald Trump’s repeated references to bombing the country last week.
“Under such highly sensitive and critical circumstances, the Boeing Flight 752 flew close to a sensitive IRGC military site at an altitude and angle that made it appear as a hostile target”, the statement continues. “The plane was hit due to human error and unintentionally”.
It wasn’t immediately clear what “sensitive IRGC military sites” the army was referring to. There do not appear to be any such sites in the area, and the plane followed what looks to be a normal flight path. Siavash Amir-Mokri, head of Iran Airports & Air Navigation Co., said there wasn’t an order to cancel flights and nobody was alerted to security issues.
Later, authorities in Iran admitted the only mistake made was their own.
“The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly”, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the IRGC general in charge of the airspace unit said. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members”.
Protests erupted in Tehran and spread across the country, thrusting the populace back into open conflict with the regime just days after the death of Qassem Soleimani united Iran in mourning. It now seems likely that a repeat of the fuel protests from late last year is in the cards.
“Khamenei is a murderer!” some protesters shouted. “Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” others yelled. Anti-riot police dispersed tear-gas.
Credit: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA, via Shutterstock
Trump effectively forbid Iranian officials from cracking down on dissent. “The government of Iran must allow human rights groups to monitor and report facts from the ground on the ongoing protests by the Iranian people”, he warned, in a Saturday afternoon tweet. “There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching”.
There were reports of protesters shredding pictures of Soleimani, just days after his image was carried by millions through the streets alongside his casket.
Mike Pompeo is predictably excited, tweeting that Iranians “deserve a better future”.
The voice of the Iranian people is clear. They are fed up with the regime’s lies, corruption, ineptitude, and brutality of the IRGC under @khamenei_ir's kleptocracy. We stand with the Iranian people who deserve a better future. pic.twitter.com/tBOjv9XsIG
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 11, 2020
This was everyone’s worst fear, and it was all but confirmed on Thursday, prior to Iran’s admission, when the US, Canada, the UK and Australia all said they had intelligence to indicate that Iran did, in fact, shoot down the airliner.
Ukrainian officials are furious and are insisting that were it not for evidence uncovered at the scene, Iran likely wouldn’t have admitted to culpability.
Nobody has suggested this was done out of malice.
“Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane [and] death of 176 innocent people”, Hassan Rouhani lamented, adding that “investigations continue”. He called it a “great tragedy and [an] unforgivable mistake”.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this”, Rouhani went to remark. “My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families. I offer my sincerest condolences”.
“A sad day. Preliminary conclusions of internal investigation by Armed Forces: Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster”, Javad Zarif tweeted. “Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations”. He used an emoji of a broken heart.
Iran will compensate the victims, but in all likelihood, the incident will only serve to make the country even more of an international pariah. That’s partly why we variously suggested that an admission was unlikely despite what was sure to be overwhelming evidence.
Tehran did not help matters by briefly detaining the British ambassador Saturday. Dominic Raab was furious. “The arrest of our Ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law”, Raab said. “The Iranian government is at a cross-roads moment. It can continue its march towards pariah status with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to deescalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards.”
Our assessment that Tehran wouldn’t admit to inadvertently downing the plane was supported by Iran’s own comments. As late as Friday morning, Iran was still trafficking in abrasive rhetoric, accusing the West of “psychological warfare”. “It’s not possible” that the plane was shot down, an official said at a press conference Friday.
It was expected to take as long as two months to extract the information from the voice and flight data recorders [and] as long as two years to complete the probe. With this admission, that process will be accelerated meaningfully.
We wouldn’t go so far as to blame Trump for something he didn’t do, but we would note the obvious, which is that the US president’s explicit and repeated threats to bomb Iranian sites certainly contributed to a heightened state of military readiness in the minutes after the IRGC launched missiles at US targets across the border in Iraq. In the simplest possible terms, this wouldn’t have happened if Trump didn’t assassinate Soleimani last week.
But beyond that, it makes little sense to document the myriad “what ifs” and “had it not been fors”. After all, that’s an infinite regress and at the end of the day, Iran should have been more careful, something they have now readily admitted.
That General Hajizadeh didn’t close the country’s airspace to commercial flights at a time when the IRGC was conducting military operations is an egregious error of omission. He said the plane was mistaken for a cruise missile.
“I wish I was dead”, Hajizadeh told local media. “I accept all responsibility for this incident”.
State television also said Iran will send the black boxes from the doomed flight to France. The country says it doesn’t have the technology to decode them.