Iranian investigators are blaming a misaligned missile battery and miscommunication between soldiers and their commanders for the Revolutionary Guard shooting down a Ukrainian jetliner in January, killing 176 people — including 55 Canadians.
A report released late Saturday by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization comes months after the Jan. 8 crash near Tehran. Authorities had initially denied responsibility, only changing course days later after Western nations presented extensive evidence that Iran had shot down the plane.
The report may signal a new phase in the investigation into the crash, as the aircraft’s black box flight recorder is due to be sent to Paris, where international investigators will finally be able to examine it.
The strike happened the same night Iran launched a ballistic missile attack targeting U.S. soldiers in Iraq, its response to the American drone strike that killed Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3.
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The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries on a route that was popular with those travelling onward to Canada.
Global Affairs Canada restated Sunday Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s demand that Iran immediately conduct “a comprehensive and transparent investigation” according to international standards.
“Canada will continue to actively work with its international partners to hold the Iranian regime to account and to ensure Iran follows through on its commitments, including the download of the data and voice recorders at France’s Civil Aviation Safety Investigation and Analysis Bureau on July 20,” a statement from the department read.
Scheduled air traffic allowed to resume
At the time, Iranian troops were bracing for a U.S. counterstrike and appear to have mistaken the plane for a missile. The civil aviation report does not acknowledge that, only saying a change in the “alertness level of Iran’s air defence” allowed previously scheduled air traffic to resume.
The report detailed a series of moments where the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 could have been avoided.
The report said the surface-to-air missile battery that targeted the Boeing 737-800 had been relocated and was not properly reoriented.
Those manning the missile battery could not communicate with their command centre, they misidentified the civilian flight as a threat and opened fire twice without getting approval from ranking officials, the report said.
“If each had not arisen, the aircraft would not have been targeted,” it said.
Western intelligence officials and analysts believe Iran shot down the aircraft with a Russian-made Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15. In 2007, Iran took the delivery of 29 Tor M1 units from Russia under a contract worth an estimated $700 million US. The system is mounted on a tracked vehicle and carries a radar and a pack of eight missiles.
The report did not say why the Guard moved the air defence system, though that area near the airport is believed to be home to both regular military and bases of the paramilitary Guard.
The report notes that the Ukrainian flight had done nothing out of the ordinary up until the missile launch, with its transponder and other data being broadcast.
“At the time of firing the first missile, the aircraft was flying at a normal altitude and trajectory,” the report said.
Blame placed entirely on crew of missile battery
The plane had just taken off from Imam Khomeini International Airport when the first missile exploded, possibly damaging its radio equipment, the report said. The second missile likely directly struck the aircraft, as videos that night show the plane exploding into a ball of fire before crashing into a playground and farmland on the outskirts of Tehran.
The report put the blame entirely on the crew of the missile battery. Already, six people believed to be involved in the incident have been arrested, judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili reportedly said in June. He said at the time three had been released on bail while the other three remained held.
In recent months, Iran has repeatedly delayed releasing the aircraft’s so-called black box, which includes data and communications from the cockpit leading up to the downing. The U.S., under international regulations, has a right to be part of the investigation, as the plane involved was a Boeing.
Iran is to send the black box to France on July 20, where Ukrainian and French experts are expected to examine it, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency recently reported. Iranian officials did not have the equipment on hand to read data from the box.