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New questions arise as Iran says it shot down plane


DUBAI: Iran’s recognition that it shot down a Ukrainian plane, killing 176 people, raised new questions Saturday about transparency in the Islamic Republic and what led to the downing of the commercial flight.

While his paramilitary Revolutionary Guard assumed responsibility, a commander also claimed that he warned Tehran to close his airspace amid fears of Us reprisals for launching ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases that they hosted American forces.

The same Guard commander also said he raised the possibility to his superiors that his forces would shoot down the plane as soon as Wednesday morning. However, Iranian air accident investigators, government officials and diplomats denied for days after a missile shot down the Boeing 737 operated by the Ukrainian international airline from Imam International Airport Jomeini from Tehran.

“No missile has been launched in that area at the time,” said Hamid Baeidinejad, the Iranian ambassador to the UK, in an interview Friday with Sky News, asking further questions about the allegation of “absolutely unacceptable.”

Then the story changed early on Saturday morning, with the General Staff of Iran’s armed forces saying the flight had been “unintentionally directed due to human error.”

Baeidinejad later apologized on Twitter.

“In my statement to the UK media yesterday, I conveyed the official findings of my country’s responsible authorities that the missile could not be fired and hit the Ukrainian aircraft in that time period,” he wrote. “I… regret for conveying such erroneous findings.

But even upon acknowledging the takedown, a statement from the army and the Guard later claimed that the attack raised the question of who knew about the attack and at what point. General Amir Ali Hajizadeh of the Guard’s aerospace program said Wednesday told his superior that “the simultaneous occurrence of the launch and the crash was suspicious.”

Hajizadeh’s immediate superior would be the Chief Commander of the Guard, General Hossein Salami. Ultimately, the Guard responds only to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who only on Saturday recognized the missile attack, citing a report by Iran’s conventional armed forces.

However, even the army’s own statement raises questions, as it says the flight moved “very close to a sensitive military site” belonging to the Guard.

“The altitude and direction of the flight’s movement were like an enemy target, so the aircraft was inadvertently attacked due to human error,” the statement reads.

However, flight data for each Ukrainian International Airlines flight from Tehran since early November shows that Wednesday’s flight followed a similar altitude and flight path, according to the flight tracking website FlightRadar24. Planes departing from Imam Jomeini Airport routinely take off going west as the Ukrainian flight did.

Hajizadeh said anti-aircraft battery troops mistook the flight for a cruise missile, although the aircraft was moving just over 500 kmh (310 mph). Cruise missiles travel at faster speeds. He also said the crew of the missile batsman had “only 10 seconds” to make a decision and his radios were jammed, something he didn’t elaborate. Iran routinely jams satellite and other signals.

Nine other flights departed the airport early Wednesday morning before the Ukrainian passenger plane also ran into trouble. Hajizadeh said the Guard suggested that Tehran should close its airspace, as it had “prepared for a full conflict” with the United States, although officials took no action.

Analysts have questioned the decision in the days after the takedown.

“The first thing a country should do in the event of escalation of the military conflict is to close the sky for civilian flights,” said retired Ukrainian general Ihor Romanenko, a military analyst. “But this involves severe financial losses, fines and losses, so a cynical approach prevailed in Iran.”

Hajizadeh’s comments also suggest that the Revolutionary Guard has resumed the use of a missile test base in Bidgeneh, the location of the anti-aircraft battery that fired on the aircraft. An explosion at the base in 2011 killed 17 people, including one of the main commanders in Iran’s ballistic missile program, General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam.

The Guard has ample autonomy in Iran. It prides itself on its aggressive stance, whether it’s having tense encounters with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf or shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone last summer. Concerns about that assault saw the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reissue a warning about flying over Iran a few days before the takedown, warning that “misidentification” remained a risk.

And although the United States had struck days earlier, killing Iranian Guard General Qassim Suleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad, he did not retaliate on the night of ballistic missile strikes. But that did not stop Iranian officials like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and others who tried to blame “American adventurism” for Iran shooting down the plane.

Times of India