U.S. Intel: Iran Shot Down Plane, Then Realized Mistake 1

The Ukrainian airliner that crashed on Wednesday morning in Iran, killing all 176 people aboard, was shot out of the sky by one of Iran’s anti-aircraft missile systems, probably as the result of a horrifying mistake, according to U.S., Canadian, and European officials familiar with the intelligence. 

Intelligence indicates the Iranians came to see they had erred soon after the plane was downed, per two U.S. government sources.

Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, a Boeing 737-800 traveling from Tehran to Kyiv, went down in flames hours after Iran fired a ground to ground missile fusillade at two U.S.-used military bases in neighboring Iraq. While investigators have made no determination into the cause of the crash, a Ukrainian government source told The Daily Beast that their leading theory at the moment is that an Iranian missile downed the doomed plane. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has intelligence indicating that Iranians quickly learned they’d made a mistake by downing the plane, according to two U.S. government officials. That includes intercepts indicating that civil aviation officials in Iran knew the plane should not have been a military target, the sources said.

President Donald Trump speculated publicly on Thursday that the Iranians shot down the plane, an allegation first reported by Newsweek

“I have my suspicions. I don’t want to say that because other people have their suspicions also,” Trump said at the White House when asked what he thought happened to PS752. “It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood and somebody could have made a mistake. Some people say it was mechanical. I personally don’t think that’s even a question, personally. So we’ll see what happens.”

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment. But a senior European official read in on the intelligence said that the U.S. has determined Iran likely shot down the plane.

Most of the victims were Canadian or on their way to Canada when the plane crashed, and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa, “We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.” He also added that it might have been an unintentional act.

Newsweek reported that the preliminary assessment by U.S. officials was that a Russian-manufactured anti-aircraft system fired at the civilian airliner by mistake during a moment of massively heightened U.S.-Iran tensions following the U.S. assassination of Iranian external-security chief Qassem Soleimani. 

The international nature of that tangle of weapons systems and security interests–a Russian air defense system, a Ukrainian airliner, tensions with the United States–complicates the efforts at investigating the crash. 

Already, the head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzadeh, said this week that the country “will not give the black boxes to the manufacturer and the Americans. It’s not yet clear which country the black box will go to for the investigation.” Responding to reports of a possible missile strike on the aircraft on Thursday, Abezadeh called the allegations “illogical” and “scientifically impossible.”

CBS News reported that U.S. intelligence picked up signals of a radar being turned on, and American satellites also detected two surface-to-air missile launches, which happened shortly before the plane exploded.

A preliminary report by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization said the flight took off from Imam Khomeini Airport en route to Kyiv at 6:13 a.m. local time and crashed shortly thereafter. The Iranian missiles targeting bases in Iraq had been launched about five hours earlier.

“The flight continued to climb while controlled by Imam Khomeini control tower, then was delivered to approach unit at Mehrabad Airport, and was approved to climb to 26,000 feet. After losing contact with [air traffic control] at time 06:18, the aircraft crashed near Sabashahr, located on Tehran outskirts.” 

Witnesses on the ground and aboard other flights interviewed by Iranian investigators said “a fire appeared on the aircraft which was intensifying, then impacted the ground causing an explosion.” 

Under international aviation rules, authorities in the country where the crash took place have the authority to lead a crash investigation. Countries representing the owner of a crashed aircraft, its manufacturer, and the victims may also participate in the investigation.  

Among the dead were nationals from over a half dozen countries. Eighty-two were listed as Iranian and 63 as Canadians, many of them of Iranian origin.

In a statement issued Thursday, Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said he’d been in contact with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and “stressed the need for Canadian officials to be quickly granted access to Iran to provide consult services, help with the identification of the deceased and take part in the investigation of the crash.”

Shortly after the crash, images began circulating on social media purporting to show remnants from a missile fired by a Russian-manufactured SA-15 air defense system near the site of the crash. Iran’s air defense is equipped with the SA-15 system, but open source imagery experts cautioned that pictures remain unverified.

“Currently there are two separate images showing what appear to be the same Tor missile head on the ground. Statements have been made which claim these images were taken in the vicinity of the crash,” Nick Waters, a senior investigator at Bellingcat, an open source investigative news organization, told The Daily Beast. “However, no one has yet been able to verify these images, and since they do not contain any view of the background, it is not possible yet to be certain of where they were taken.”

The prospect that PS752 was shot down by accident over a conflict zone raises memories of the downing of MH17, a Malaysian airliner, blasted out of the sky above Ukraine by a Russian-made BUK anti-aircraft missile in 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.

But for Iranians the incident has a particular resonance, reminding them of an incident in 1988 when a U.S. warship shot Iran Air 655 out of the sky above the Gulf, killing all 290 people aboard, including more than 60 children.

At Borispol airport in Kyiv on Wednesday night, hundreds of people brought flowers to the improvised memorial for the victims of PS752. People arranged flowers around the victims’ photographs on the airport’s floor and discussed the bitter news. 

From the beginning, many in Kyiv  believed an Iranian missile had shot the plane down and the crash was not the result of a “technical issue,” as Ukrainian diplomats had said at first in a social media post they subsequently deleted. The mourners also wondered why U.S. President Donald Trump did not mention the crash in his speech the morning after the tragedy.  

“I think Iranians accidentally hit and brought down the plane with missile,” Ivan Yakovyna, an international observer at Novoye Vremia, a well respected Kyiv radio station, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “And that’s why Iranians don’t want to give Ukraine the plane’s black boxes.”

The Boeing 737-800 was built in 2016 and the airline, UIA, says it thoroughly checked the plane on January 6. UIA belongs to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s good friend and former business partner, Ihor Kolomoyskyi. 

This was the first crash in the airline’s history, UIA officials told reporters during a briefing on Wednesday.  “We don’t suppose that the crew has made a mistake. Considering their experience,  we wouldn’t say there was something wrong with the crew,” said Igor Sosnovsky, UIA’s vice president. 

On Wednesday President Volodymyr Zelensky assured Ukrainians that the investigation of the crash was his priority. “I am taking the whole operation under personal control. I strongly ask everyone to refrain from speculation and spreading unverified theories about the disaster until official statements are made,” Zelensky said.

In the hours since the PS752 crash, a number of videos purporting to show the flight in its final moments have surfaced on social media. Two videos, verified as likely authentic by The New York Times visual investigations team appear to show the impact of the aircraft on the ground in a suburb of Tehran. 

On Thursday, a new video surfaced on Twitter and Telegram purporting to show a flying object streak through the night sky and hitting an aircraft shortly before a loud explosion can be heard. It’s unclear yet whether the footage depicts the final moments of PS752 but investigators at Bellingcat have determined that the footage was filmed in Western Parand, near where the flight crashed, and shows the known trajectory of the flight before it crashed. 

— with additional reporting by Anna Nemtsova