(Bloomberg) –Iran admitted it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian jetliner that it mistook for a cruise missile, a dramatic reversal after days of denials that’s likely to add to pressure on an establishment locked in an economic and military confrontation with the U.S.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave his condolences over the disaster, while President Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic Republic “deeply regrets the disastrous mistake” and vowed compensation for the families of victims.
Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was flying close to a sensitive Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military site when it was downed because of “human error,” the army said after conducting its own investigation. The “culprits” would be identified and referred to judicial authorities, it said.
The commander of the Guards’ aerospace force, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, blamed a failure in communications . The operative who first mistakenly identified the plane as an incoming missile failed to get a second opinion due to a “disturbance” and had only 10 seconds to make a decision, he said.
“When I was certain that this incident had occurred, I truly wished death upon myself, because I’d rather have died than witness such an incident,” Hajizadeh said in a briefing Saturday in Tehran.
The three-year-old Boeing Co. 737-800 abruptly stopped transmitting its position and plunged to the ground about two minutes after takeoff from Tehran on Wednesday, killing all 176 aboard. The crash occurred hours after Iran started launching rockets against Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are stationed, in retaliation for the killing of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blamed “human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism” for the disaster, according to a post on Twitter.
Iran will send the black boxes of the crashed jet to France as it lacks the technology to decode them, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
The admission that Iran’s security forces hold ultimate responsibility for the downing of the plane — albeit at a time of conflict with its chief foe — is a further blow for the country’s ruling clerics at a crucial time.
It could dent the sense of national unity that built after the Jan. 3 killing by the U.S. of Soleimani — a hero to many Iranians for his work in Iraq and Syria helping to defeat Islamic State — just weeks after some of the most serious anti-government demonstrations since the 1979 revolution roiled the Islamic Republic late last year.
U.S. sanctions, particularly those aimed at stopping oil sales, have pushed the Iranian economy into recession, prompting Rouhani to accuse the U.S. of waging “economic war” against his country. The U.S. added new penalties on Friday following the attack on the Iraqi bases.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment as news emerged of the Iranian admission. But so far, President Donald Trump hasn’t sought to use the tragedy to further his campaign against Iran. On Wednesday, he pointed to a “mistake” being the likely cause for shooting down as the plane traveled through a “rough neighborhood.”
Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people.
Investigations continue to identify & prosecute this great tragedy & unforgivable mistake. #PS752
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) January 11, 2020
As recently as Friday, Iran denied that it had fired a missile at the plane and accused western governments of “psychological warfare.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Iran to conduct a “complete and open investigation,” take action on those responsible, and pay compensation.
“The morning was not good today but it brought the truth,” Zelenskiy said on Saturday. “We hope further investigation will be done without artificial delays and obstacles.”
This morning brings the truth.
Ukraine insists on a full admission of guilt. We expect Iran to bring those responsible to justice, return the bodies, pay compensation and issue an official apology. The investigation must be full, open & continue without delays or obstacles.
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) January 11, 2020
The plane appeared to fly on a normal path to the northwest of the airport on the same heading as the runway from which it departed, according to the flight-tracking service FlightRadar24. There are no obvious military sites visible on satellite photos of the plane’s flight path.
Both the U.S. and Iran have stepped back from the brink of further military conflict following the killing of Soleimani and Tehran’s retaliation, but Iran’s leaders have so far shown no sign of interest in Trump’s call for talks.
Iran has been hit by ever-tighter U.S. sanctions since Trump left the 2015 nuclear deal in an effort to force Tehran into greater concessions over its nuclear program and military posture in the Middle East. The penalties have taken a huge toll on Iran’s economy though the government has managed to stabilize the damage in recent months.
European nations have vowed to stand by the nuclear agreement under assault by Trump’s administration but they have so far failed to deliver meaningful ways of allowing trade and crucially oil sales.
The disaster adds to a list of accidental shootings of civilian aircraft.
In 1988, a U.S. Navy missile cruiser, the U.S.S. Vincennes, downed an Iran Air Airbus A300 over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 passengers and crew. The U.S. military said it mistook the airliner for an Iranian fighter jet, an account disputed by Iran.
In July 2014, a Malaysian Airlines plane carrying 298 people was shot down by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The region was the site of a conflict between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian military forces, and two military aircraft had been downed just days earlier, an international team concluded.
–With assistance from Alan Levin, Siraj Datoo, John Harney and Jon Morgan.