Western Officials Believe Iran Shot Down Ukrainian Airliner

Officials indicate the disaster might have been a mistake made at the height of tensions with the United States after Iran’s missile launch at Iraqi bases.

Rescue teams near the site of a Ukrainian plane crash.
Rescue teams work amid debris after a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers and crew crashed near Tehran on Jan. 8. AFP via Getty Images

Officials in the U.S. and Canadian governments believe Iranian missiles shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner taking off from Tehran on Wednesday, adding a new layer of complication to the dramatic escalation in tensions between Iran and the United States.

“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,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a press conference on Thursday afternoon. “This may well have been unintentional.”

A U.S. official who spoke to Foreign Policy also suggested the plane could have been mistakenly shot down by Iranian missile systems. The downing of the plane came immediately after Iran launched more than a dozen missiles at military bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops. Iranian air defenses would have been on high alert at that time.

The new revelation implicates the Iranian regime in the deaths of 176 passengers and crew members of the Ukraine International Airlines flight that was traveling from Tehran to Kyiv before it crashed, just hours after Tehran launched a series of missiles at U.S. military installations in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani. Iranian, Canadian, Ukrainian, and other European nationals were on board the flight. A majority of passengers on board were bound for Canada, and at least 63 of those killed were Canadian citizens.

Trudeau said he would not get into the specifics of the intelligence, but he was confident enough to share the news publicly. He urged the Iranian government to cooperate with Canada and other countries for a “full and credible investigation” into the crash. “I want answers. That means closure, transparency, accountability, and justice. And this government will not rest until we get that,” he said.

Asked whether the United States shouldered any of the blame for the events that led to the downing of the plane, Trudeau said, “I think it is too soon to be drawing conclusions or assigning blame or responsibility in whatever proportions.”

U.S. defense officials reportedly believe the surface-to-air missiles Iran used to shoot down the plane were Russian-made, according to CNN. The U.S. Defense and State departments did not respond to requests for comment.

Iranian officials initially told state media that the plane crashed due to a technical fault and that it appeared to turn around shortly after taking off from Tehran before disappearing off radar. Iran has so far refused to share the plane’s black box, which collects flight data, with Ukrainian authorities, though it has pledged to do so at a later date.

Iranian authorities have dismissed notions that the plane was shot down and said the cause of the crash is still under investigation.

“It is now up to the experts to investigate and to find answers to the questions of what caused the crash,” Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said in a statement on behalf of Canada, Germany, Sweden, and Ukraine at the United Nations on Thursday. “To do so, our experts must receive unconditional support for their investigations into the incident.”

When asked by reporters at the White House on Thursday about the circumstances surrounding the crash, Trump said, “Somebody could’ve made a mistake on the other side. … It has nothing to do with us.”

He added that the plane was flying in a “rough neighborhood.”

This is not the first time civilians on board a commercial airliner have paid the price for tension between Tehran and Washington. In 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from a U.S.-guided missile destroyer while flying over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 on board. According to the U.S. government, the ship’s crew incorrectly identified the airliner as an attacking fighter jet.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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