The Slatest

Iran Admits it Accidentally Shot Down Ukrainian Plane

A man sits by a memorial for the victims of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash in the Iranian capital Tehran, at the Boryspil airport outside Kyiv on January 8, 2020.
A man sits by a memorial for the victims of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash in the Iranian capital Tehran, at the Boryspil airport outside Kyiv on January 8, 2020. SERGEI SUPINSKY/Getty Images

After lots of denials, Iran’s military finally backpedaled early Saturday and admitted that it had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 people aboard. Iran blamed human error, saying the plane had taken an unexpectedly sharp turn toward a military base at a time when its military was on high alert hours after Tehran had launched rockets at bases housing American troops in Iraq. “The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter. “My thoughts and prayers go to all the mourning families.” He also vowed that those responsible for the incident would be prosecuted. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to apologize on behalf of the country, blaming the bringing down of the plane on “human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism.”

It marked a remarkable change of tune for Iran, considering the head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization had said Friday that he was “certain” Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was not hit by a missile. Amid mounting pressure from Western countries, Iran insisted that the Boeing airliner had been brought down by mechanical issues. But experts said it would have been pretty much impossible for Iran to continue to hide signs of a missile strike as intelligence agencies of several countries said the signs were clear. In addition to pressure from abroad, Iran is also facing criticism and anger domestically considering many of the victims were Iranian with dual nationality.

Many Iranians flooded Twitter with angry messages toward the government as they openly wondered why the plane would even be allowed to take off at a time when tensions were so high. Many used the term “harshest revenge,” which is what officials had vowed to carry out after the U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.* “They were supposed to take their harsh revenge against America, not the people,” Mojtaba Fathi, a journalist, wrote, according to the New York Times. Iran’s admission of guilt makes it likely that Iranians will turn against their government at a time when many had united against the country’s leaders after the killing of Soleimani.

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who heads up the aerospace division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said in an address that was broadcast live on television that his unit accepts “full responsibility” for bringing the plane down and added that when he heard the news, “I wished I was dead.” Analysts quickly said that the actions would have long-term consequences for Iran’s standing in the region and among its allies. “The little credibility that the Islamic Republic had among its supporters suffered a major blow tonight,” Rouzbeh MirEmbrahim, an independent Iran analyst in New York and a consultant with the United Nations, said. “This tragedy undermines the image Iran has cultivated as a military power and weakened it significantly both regionally and internationally.”

The Iranian military vowed a “major reform” to make sure an error of this magnitude would not happen again. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country expects Iran to issue a “full admission of guilt,” including “official apologies through diplomatic channels.” He also said the “perpetrators” should be brought to justice and Iran should compensate the families of the victims. The plane, which was flying to Kyiv, had 167 passengers and nine crew members aboard, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians.

Jan. 11, 2020: In an earlier version of this post, Qassem Soleimani’s name was misspelled.