What really happened to Ukraine International Airlines flight 752?
10 Jan 2020|

The precise details of the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 after it left Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport on 9 January may take years to establish. In the case of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, it took more than five years to establish an evidence base sufficient for the Dutch government to decide in June 2019 to mount criminal prosecutions of four men suspected of being involved in the downing.

That said, there is already enough information on the public record about the Tehran incident to make several points abundantly clear. US intelligence resources identified an Iranian air-defence radar system tracking flight PS752 as it climbed to around 8,000 feet after takeoff. Those radars provided guidance data for two missiles which were fired at the aircraft. At least one detonated sufficiently close to the plane to cause an explosion and the crash minutes later that resulted in the deaths of all 176 people on board. This intelligence has been distributed to the Five Eyes intelligence partners, and the prime ministers of Canada, the UK and Australia have all confirmed they accept the veracity of the reporting. Widely available imagery of the crash site has shown segments of the aircraft’s fuselage peppered with shrapnel holes in a manner very similar to MH17, and what look to be remnants of SA-15 missile parts have been photographed at the crash site.

Here I suggest a plausible theory about what might have happened: Only a couple of hours after Iran launched a 20-missile salvo against American forces located at two Iraqi military bases, Iranian air-defence units around Tehran would have been on high alert for the possibility of a US retaliatory strike. Those units would have been looking for relatively low-flying cruise missiles, fast-moving missiles arriving at high altitude and other airborne threats which the SA-15 is designed to defeat. Into the air climbs flight PS752, taking off at 0612 from Khomeini Airport. One or perhaps two Iranian SA-15 batteries see the radar track and fire at PS752, thinking the civilian airliner is a hostile combatant.

In the 2014 downing of MH17, intercepted phone conversations that took place minutes after the incident made it clear that the Russian missile battery crew thought they were attacking a Ukrainian fighter aircraft. On the face of it, the Iranian air-defence crews may also have thought they were firing on a hostile aircraft or cruise missile.

Time will tell if this is an accurate description of what happened, but a curious feature of the Tehran incident is the relatively benign way in which national leaders have responded to it, compared with the much more hostile reactions to the shooting down of MH17. For example, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a Canberra media conference on Friday:

All I’m saying is that the intelligence that we have is similar to what our partners have, and that there is nothing to suggest there at this point, an intentional act. Now I’m not going to go any further than that at this point. There’ll be further reports I’m sure made by others who are more closely associated with this terrible tragedy. What I’m simply saying, is that, as the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Canada have also said and I’m basically saying exactly the same thing as them, what this intelligence suggests is that it is difficult to come to the conclusion at this point that there was some sort of intentional act here.

Likewise, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Ottawa: ‘The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional.’

It will be critical to understand what the Australian and Canadian prime ministers mean by using words like ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional.’ It’s unlikely that an Iranian air-defence commander intended to deliberately target and shoot down a civilian passenger aircraft. But the shooting down of PS752, even if it was mistakenly thought to be an attacking military platform, was most surely the result of deliberate command decisions. Sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons are designed not to be able to fire without deliberate human direction. It is implausible that an anti-aircraft missile system would fire autonomously as a result of a technical or software malfunction, or be able to launch missiles without human intervention, or indeed that a ‘red button’ would be accidently pushed, say, by an individual falling over in a command centre.

Unless it can clearly be demonstrated otherwise, the shooting down of PS752 should be treated as a criminal act as heinous as that of the MH17 shootdown. If there is some credible explanation that can show how it was possible for two anti-aircraft missiles to be launched without there being any intention to bring down any plane, military or civilian, the Iranians would be well advised to come clean with the explanation quickly and open their system to a full international investigation. At least to date, Tehran’s refusal to allow PS752’s black boxes to be inspected by the aircraft’s American manufacturer suggests that the Iranian government is culpably hiding the truth about the incident.