By Greg Norman
Published January 14, 2020
Iran announced Tuesday authorities have arrested those responsible for accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane last week as President Hassan Rouhani said that anyone involved in the “painful and unforgivable” mishap “should be punished.”
The arrests come as Iran’s judiciary also has taken 30 people into custody over street protests that have erupted inside the Islamic Republic following the plane disaster. The shootdown and the lack of transparency from Iranian officials – who initially claimed the crash was the result of a mechanical failure – has reignited anger at the country’s leadership.
"The judiciary should form a special court with a ranking judge and dozens of experts," President Rouhani said in a speech televised in Iran. “This is not an ordinary case. The entire world will be watching this court.”
Iran acknowledged only on Saturday – three days later and in the face of mounting evidence – that its Revolutionary Guard forces had shot down the plane by mistake as it braced for a possible military confrontation with the United States.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said Tuesday that “extensive investigations have taken place and some individuals have been arrested.” The statement on the judiciary's website did not say how many individuals had been detained or name them.
Rouhani called the plane crash "a painful and unforgivable” mistake and promised that his administration would pursue the case “by all means.”
“The responsibility falls on more than just one person," he said, adding that those found culpable “should be punished.”
Iran shot down the plane as its forces were on alert for possible U.S. retaliation after Iran launched ballistic missiles on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. No one was hurt in that attack, which was carried out in response to the killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad.
While Rouhani pointed to mistakes and negligence, he also repeated the government's line Tuesday that the tragedy was ultimately rooted in U.S. aggression.
“It was the U.S. that made for an agitated environment. It was the U.S. that created an unusual situation. It was the U.S. that threatened and took our beloved (Soleimani),” he said.
Rouhani called the government's admission that Iranian forces shot down the plane a “first good step.”
He added that Iranian experts who retrieved the Ukrainian plane's black box and have sent it to France for analysis.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians — including many Iranians with dual citizenship — and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. There were several children among the passengers, including an infant.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard’s aerospace division, said over the weekend his unit accepts full responsibility for the shootdown.
He said when he learned about the downing of the plane, “I wished I was dead.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.