Missiles? What missiles? The head of Iran’s civil aviation bureau claimed today that the cause of the explosion of a Ukrainian passenger jet and the deaths of 176 people on board is still not known. However, Ali Abedzadeh insisted that they definitely knew no missile hit the plane. “This claim,” Abedzadeh said, “was made by American politicians,” and challenged them to report their findings in public:
Iran has strongly denied that a Ukraine International Airlines jetliner that crashed in Iran shortly after takeoff earlier this week, killing 176 people, was downed by an Iranian missile by mistake.
“What is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane,” Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, said on Friday.
Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei, also speaking Friday according to Iran’s Press TV, accused the U.S. of “adding insult to the injury of the bereaved families” by publicly stating the plan was brought down by an Iranian missile.
“No one will assume responsibility for such a big lie once it is known that the claim is fraudulent,” he said.
That’s a cute claim, but the Iranians seem to be the ones clamping down on information. Rather than turn over the black boxes to an independent investigating agency — including the one cited by Abedzadeh in this statement — they have starting issuing their own read-outs from the data. As NBC’s Today analyst Tom Costello notes, this hardly stokes confidence in Iranian credibility on this point. Costello also says that suspicions are rising that the Iranians have tampered with the debris field:
“Iran has already started to read out the black boxes without Western observers there to see the process… There are already some concerns about whether the wreckage field has in any way been moved or tampered with.” @tomcostellonbc on Iran plane crash pic.twitter.com/K2ighZ6Ixg
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 10, 2020
Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky apparently finds Iran less than credible, too. Overnight, Zelensky asked Western countries to share their intelligence on the downing of Ukraine International Flight 752, which would mean especially the American intelligence:
Ukraine’s leader pleaded Friday for Western leaders to share with him intelligence that they said suggested Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was brought down by an Iranian missile, possibly fired by mistake. …
“Given the recent statements by the heads of state in the media, we call on all international partners, especially the governments of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, to provide data and evidence relating to the disaster to the commission investigating the causes,” Zelensky said in a statement on Facebook.
That process has already begun, according to one of Zelensky’s ministers, but not everyone was immediately in the loop:
The Ukrainian leader is expected to speak with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday, and Zelensky spokeswoman Iuliia Mendel wrote on Twitter that Zelensky and Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko met with U.S. officials and “received important data that will be studied” by Ukraine’s specialists. …
A Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said that Zelensky made the public request for evidence about the crash because the United States had not yet shared with Ukraine its intelligence about the missile Thursday.
“The theory that the plane was hit by a missile is not ruled out, but it is not confirmed so far,” Zelensky added. Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, wrote on Facebook that his team was considering a variety of possible causes but wanted to search for possible debris from a Tor air-defense missile, after seeing online reports about the discovery of possible fragments of one near the crash site.
The Iranians are digging themselves a big hole with this explicit denial. Videos strongly suggest some sort of missile struck the plane, and tell-tale holes in the debris certainly underscore that interpretation even without any recourse to intelligence. The US is not going to withhold their satellite data for long; we will probably try to degrade it for public release at some point, but the Ukrainians will get the full benefit of it, as will the Canadians.
It would have been better for Tehran to admit to an error and settle the civil claims rather than attempt total denials, but this is a characteristic of totalitarian systems based on fear and the perception of omnipotence. The mullahs in Iran have taken two big body blows to that perception in the past week — the death of Qassem Soleimani and this idiotic anti-aircraft accident. Their inability to process this rationally speaks to how fragile the mullahs might perceive themselves to be at the moment.