By Rebecca Grant
Published January 11, 2020
Caught red-handed with solid evidence showing it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane – tragically killing all 176 people aboard – the government of Iran had to admit Saturday that it was guilty of the horrific attack.
Iran bears full responsibility for this unprovoked mass killing and should be required to pay compensation to the families of the dead passengers and the airline – although no amount of money can make up for the lost lives.
And airlines from around the world would be wise now to consider whether flying into Iran is worth the risk. If some international airlines stop service to Iran it would strike yet another economic blow to the rogue regime, further isolating it from the rest of the world.
Any attempt to blame the U.S. for provoking the downing of the Ukrainian plane would be absurd, although Iran is trying to do that.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the shoot-down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was human error “caused by U.S. adventurism” in part.
Zarif is correct about the “human error” part – but Iran’s military escalation caused it.
Make no mistake: Iran intended to shoot down the target it attacked with a surface-to-air missile.
Iran’s Brig. Gen. Amirali Hajizadeh, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace commander, claimed Saturday the battery mistook the Boeing 737 for a U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile.
The explanation fits if the airliner leveled off and was near terrain. In that case, the profile may have looked like an inbound cruise missile, at least on a radar scope. That may be all Iran says, so we may never know the full truth.
The bigger problem is that military commanders of anti-aircraft batteries were authorized to fire at will whenever they detected what they believed to be a hostile aircraft over Iranian territory.
The airline route early Wednesday out of Tehran was for a standard departure, but the route takes planes over an area thick with air defense batteries protecting the city and major nuclear sites nearby.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has its own air defense batteries and mission alongside Iran’s regular military units. The Revolutionary Guards have tinkered with the Russian missile systems they buy and have even built some of their own systems – like the one they used to shoot down the U.S. Navy Global Hawk drone last June.
Iran is guilty of building up the Revolutionary Guards to carry out a regime policy of blood-thirsty hostility and fueling it with weapon
The airliners taking off out of Tehran all day Tuesday were in no danger because the air defense alert status was “weapons tight” – meaning, don’t shoot at anything. Business as usual.
Then Iran launched ballistic missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq at Al Assad and Irbil early Wednesday before dawn (Tuesday night in the U.S.). Fortunately, there were no American causalities.
Iranian air defenses went into combat mode, wrongly anticipating a U.S. strike in response, since they had intended to harm Americans.
Iran saw how U.S. and allied airstrikes caused devastating damage to President Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad in Iraq in 2003. The Iranians saw how American, British and French warplanes blew past Russian air defenses and hit chemical weapons sites in downtown Damascus in Syria in April 2018.
Because of their fear of a violent U.S. response to the Iranian attack on U.S. forces in Iraq, the Revolutionary Guards’ air defense headquarters changed the alert status to “weapons-free” – authorizing air defense batteries to shoot independently at any target in the air that they thought posed a threat.
At this point, the commander had permission to launch when his battery’s radars detected a target. This commander may have been inexperienced and poorly trained; however, as a Revolutionary Guards officer, he was primed to fight.
The Iranian equipment should be able to distinguish an airliner from a cruise missile or drone or combat plane, but Iran has been modifying systems and adding its own technology, which may impair performance.
The soldiers manning the Iranian air defense batteries near Tehran and the nuclear sites north of the city must have been tense. But no one ordered air traffic control at Tehran’s airport to halt takeoffs and landings – something that would have been a sensible safety precaution.
Iran does not have a good “single integrated air picture” to track aircraft coming into the country from hundreds of miles out, identify them, and transmit the information across the air defense network.
The Iranian system simply gathers information on flying objects, without necessarily knowing in advance or for sure what those objects are. When the battery radar picks up an aircraft brushing the radar lobe of the battery, the target is in range for just seconds.
At that point, the commander must decide quickly whether to fire and risk hitting the wrong target, or letting the aircraft pass and possibly being responsible for allowing an attack on an Iranian target.
This Iranian commander made the wrong decision.
U.S. systems detected the anti-aircraft missile launch. Next, Iranian communications probably when berserk. The air defense higher command was probably on open phone lines calling the battery. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is also the commander in chief of Iran’s military and was probably demanding answers as to what happened.
The missile launch, the tragic fiery plane crash, and the spike of Iran’s military and emergency communications lay out all the evidence of what Iran did. U.S. TV news programs were even airing video of the missile attack.
At the Pentagon, the National Military Command Center would have received information about the attack on the Ukrainian plane quickly and informed the White House. The U.S. was then able to pass on the information to allies, including Canada, one of the “Five Eyes” in a treaty with the U.S. to share signals intelligence information. The downing of the plane took the lives of 63 Canadians.
Iran’s shoot-down was an accident, at least in part, but only in the misidentification of the target. Iran did not intend to shoot down an airliner. The air defense battery commander thought and hoped he was shooting at an American drone, cruise missile or combat plane like one of those B-52s deployed to Diego Garcia or the F-15Es that struck Iranian-backed militia targets in Iraq last month.
Iran is guilty of building up the Revolutionary Guards to carry out a regime policy of blood-thirsty hostility and fueling it with weapons.
It’s relatively easy to launch offensive ballistic missiles. Accurate air defense is much more difficult. The Iranian regime would be smart to pay fresh attention to Iran’s military weaknesses and the operational problems that resonate through other branches of the nation’s armed forces.
Admitting that it shot down the Ukrainian plane offers Iran a chance to begin to cooperate and deescalate tensions with the U.S. and other nations. This is the time for Iran to behave like “a normal nation” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said.
By respectfully apologizing (as it has done) and assisting with the recovery of remains of the passengers and the investigation of the shoot-down, Iran has the opportunity to accept this moment of appalling grief as a chance to change course. Let’s hope the regime takes it.