Ukraine airliner that crashed in Iran likely shot down, US officials say

A battered red shoe with a bow on it sits in a rugged field.
Enlarge / A child’s shoe is pictured on January 8, 2020, at the scene of a Ukrainian airliner that crashed shortly after take-off near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran. US officials say that the plane was likely shot down by an Iranian air defense system.

The cause of the crash on Wednesday of a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 outside of Tehran is still in doubt. But Ukrainian officials had suggested that it was possible the aircraft had been shot down by an Iranian-launched air defense missile—and now US intelligence officials have suggested they have evidence that this is the case.

If true, that means that the deaths of the 176 passengers aboard the aircraft were the direct result of the tensions between the United States and Iran.

Video from a witness in Tehran showed the aircraft in flames shortly after takeoff before it crashed in a fireball at a soccer field outside the city. The crew never radioed for help, and telemetry from the 737 was cut off suddenly while it was still in flight.

The heavy fuel load likely caused the explosion at the crash site, which lit up the night sky. Security video at the field captured the explosion.

Now Bellingcat has reported that it is analyzing video that may show the actual moment the missile hit the aircraft.

The crash happened just hours after Iran launched ballistic missiles against two bases in Iraq housing US troops early Wednesday. Iran initially claimed that the crash was due to a sudden mechanical failure. The aircraft’s flight recorders have been recovered but were damaged—and Iranian officials have stated that they will not allow Boeing or US investigators to have access to them.

The New York Times and NBC News have both cited US officials as saying that data from satellite footage and other intelligence suggests that at least one Iranian missile was fired accidentally at the 737. [Update, 4:30 PM EST: It is now reported that two missiles were fired.]

Iran’s air defenses include a number of Russian-manufactured long-range and short-range systems, including 29 Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) mobile surface-to-air missile defense systems purchased in 2005. In 2016, after delays related to United Nations sanctions, Russia delivered the S-300 missile system to Iran—the predecessor to the S-400 system Russia has sold Turkey.

The SA-15 is likely the weapon involved in this case. Used for short- to medium-range defense, it is intended for targets at medium to very low altitude and has a maximum range of 15.5 miles. The Tor missile system launches missiles in pairs. The system may have been set to automatically respond to threats.

Tragically, this would not be the first time a civilian airliner has been shot down due to heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. In 1988, the USS Vincennes—an Aegis missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf during the confrontation with Iran known as Operation Earnest Will—mistakenly shot down Iran Air Flight 655, a scheduled civilian flight from Tehran to Dubai via Bandar Abbas. Two hundred and ninety people were killed.

In a comment about the probable cause of the crash of the Ukraine International flight, President Donald Trump said, “It’s a tragic thing, because somebody could’ve made a mistake on the other side… It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood, and somebody could’ve made a mistake.”


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