Iranian Missile System Shot Down Ukraine Flight, Probably by Mistake, Sources Say
The Ukrainian flight that crashed just outside the Iranian capital of Tehran was struck by an anti-aircraft missile system, a Pentagon official, a senior U.S. intelligence official and an Iraqi intelligence official told Newsweek . None of the officials was authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, a Boeing 737–800 en route from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airpot to Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport, stopped transmitting data Tuesday just minutes after takeoff and not long after Iran launched missiles at military bases housing U.S. and allied forces in neighboring Iraq. The aircraft is believed to have been struck by a Russia-built Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile system, known to NATO as Gauntlet, the three officials told Newsweek .
One Pentagon and one U.S. senior intelligence official told Newsweek that the Pentagon’s assessment is that the incident was accidental. Iran’s anti-aircraft systems were likely active following the country’s missile attack, which came in response to the U.S. killing last week of Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, sources said.
“Well, I have my suspicions,” President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House following Newsweek 's report. “It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood and someone could have made a mistake.”
U.S. Central Command declined to comment on the matter when contacted by Newsweek . The National Security Council and the State Department have not yet responded.
Of the 176 people on board, 82 were Iranian, 63 were Canadian and 11 were Ukrainian (including nine crewmembers), along with 10 Swedish, seven Afghan and three German nationals. None survived.
The incident was first reported by Iranian semi-official media outlets, which cited the country’s Red Crescent Society as assessing that the initial cause appeared to be mechanical failure. The Ukrainian embassy in Tehran shared this view in a statement, but later retracted it, with Kyiv warning not to draw conclusions from preliminary assessments.
Images began to circulate Wednesday of what appeared to be fragments of a Tor M-1 missile said to have been found in a suburb southwest of Tehran. Ukraine Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danylov said Thursday in a statement that contact with a Tor M-1 system was among the potential causes for the plane’s destruction that his country was looking into as Ukrainian and Iranian officials met.
Other potential scenarios involved a collision with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or another flying object, technical malfunction and a terrorist attack.
The Civil Aviation Organization of Iran Chief has also invited Canada and Sweden to cooperate in the accident investigation, however, Chief Executive Ali Abedzadeh has stressed that he would not hand over the aircraft’s black box—which may provide details of the doomed flight’s final moments—to the United States.
Abedzadeh also on Thursday dismissed speculation that a missile strike took down. In a statement, he said this outcome was “scientifically impossible and such rumors make no sense at all.”
In a rare call Thursday, Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne spoke with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, to whom he “stressed the need for Canadian officials to be quickly granted access to Iran to provide consular services, help with identification of the deceased and take part in the investigation of the crash.”
Champagne said that “Canada and Canadians have many questions which will need to be answered.”
Asked whether the Canadian government is considering or leading with the possibility that an anti-aircraft missile took down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, Global Affairs spokesperson Krystyna Dodds said her office would have to get back to Newsweek on the matter.
Later Thursday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that his officials have received “intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence” indicating “that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.”
“This may well have been unintentional,” he added. “This new information reinforces the need for a thorough investigation into this matter. Canada is working with its allies to ensure that a thorough and credible investigation is conducted to determine the causes of this fatal crash.”
The Iranian missile strike against Iraqi military positions held by U.S. troops was the latest in a violent series of events involving the two powers. Washington has blamed rocket attacks targeting U.S. personnel on Iraqi militias backed by Tehran and responded with deadly border strikes against these fighters, leading to violent protests at the U.S. embassy, an event followed shortly after by Soleimani’s assassination.
The two foes have feuded for four decades but rarely confronted one another directly. The U.S. and Iran’s dispute dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that outed a West-backed monarchy and saw diplomats taken hostage at Washington’s embassy in Tehran for over 14 months.
Their mutual hostility only worsened as the U.S. backed Iraq’s invasion of Iran the following year, a deadly eight-year bout accompanied by so-called “tanker wars” in the Persian Gulf. Shortly before the end of the conflict, a U.S. Navy warship shot down an Iranian passenger plane, Iran Air Flight 655, in 1988, killing all 290 onboard in a missile strike also deemed accidental.
The Persian Gulf is crucial for the global flow of oil. Unrest has now returned to the critical region and its waterways in the wake of Trump’s decision to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear deal that granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbing its nuclear activities. The president opted for de-escalation after the recent Iranian missile attack, expanding sanctions but also calling on the Islamic Republic to give up support for militant groups and to stop seeking a nuclear weapon—something Tehran has always denied wanting.
Trudeau says Canada has intelligence Iran shot down Ukrainian airliner
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that Canadian officials have intelligence from their own sources and Canada’s allies that shows a Ukrainian airliner was shot down by an Iranian surface to air missile. “This may have been unintentional,” Trudeau said at a press conference in Ottowa.
Trudeau has called for a thorough investigation into what caused the crash.
“The intelligence and evidence suggests that it’s a surface to air strike,” Trudeau added, though he would not provide additional details.
The US increasingly believes that Iran mistakenly shot down the airliner, according to multiple US officials. The working theory is based on continuing analysis of data from satellites, radar and electronic data collected routinely by US military and intelligence.
A US official familiar with the intelligence said the plane was shot down by two Russian made SA-15 surface to air missiles. The US saw Iranian radar signals lock onto the jetliner, before it was shot down.
The morning after the incident, US analysts discovered the data but took another day to verify, the official said.
President Donald Trump on Thursday said he suspected the crash was not due to mechanical issues, indicating that “somebody could have made a mistake on the other side.”
Asked during a White House event what he thought happened to the plane, Trump said, “Well, I have my suspicions.”
European security officials told CNN they believe reports suggesting that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface to air missile in error are credible.
The timing of the crash has fueled speculation about its cause, coming just hours after Iran fired missiles at two Iraqi bases housing US troops in retaliation for the killing of its top general, also in Iraq. The exchange of attacks between Tehran and Washington on Iraqi soil was a dramatic escalation of tensions between the adversaries, and is raising fears of another proxy war in the Middle East.
The head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Authority is questioning the US allegation.
Speaking to CNN, Ali Abedzadeh said, “if a rocket or missile hits a plane, it will free fall.”
Abedzadeh asked, “How can a plane be hit by rocket or missile” and then the pilot “try to turn back to the airport?”
He also told CNN the plane’s black boxes are damaged and Iran may need help decoding them.
“Generally speaking, Iran has the potential and know-how to decode the black box. Everybody knows that,” Abedzadeh said.
However, he also added that, “the black box of this very Ukrainian Boeing 737 is damaged. Ukrainian Aviation experts arrived here in Tehran today. We had a session with them. From tomorrow they will start decoding the data.”
“If the available equipment is not enough to get the content” Iran will outsource the boxes to “the experts from France or Canada,” Abedzadeh said.
Newsweek was first to report US and Iraqi sources believe Iran shot down the plane by mistake.
“I don’t want to say that because other people have their suspicions,” Trump said, but added, “Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side … not our system. It has nothing to do with us.”
“It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood. They could’ve made a mistake. Some people say it was mechanical. I personally don’t think that’s even a question.”
Asked if he thought it was downed by accident, Trump said, “I don’t know. I really don’t know … that’s up to them. At some point they’ll release the black box.”
“Ideally they’d give it to Boeing,” he said, but said giving it to France or “some other country” would be fine, too.
“Something very terrible happened, very devastating,” he concluded.
The Ukrainian International Airlines (UIA) flight PS752 came down just minutes after takeoff from Tehran on Wednesday local time, killing all 176 people on board, including dozens of Iranians and Canadians. The Boeing 737-800 was headed for Kiev, where 138 passengers were expected to take a connecting flight to Canada. Ukrainians, Swedes, Afghans, Germans and British nationals were also aboard.
One possibility being considered is that an Iranian missile unit saw something on their radar, thought they were under attack and fired.
“If it is true that an Iranian missile brought down a civilian airliner, it points to exactly the sort of miscalculation and recklessness that attends the cycle of escalation and violence we’ve been seeing in the region. The innocent people killed in this tragedy would then, sadly, not be the only victims. Iran must fully cooperate with investigators and be willing to account for their actions,” CNN national security analyst retired Adm. John Kirby said.
Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization head, Ali Abedzadeh, said it would not hand the flight data recorders to Boeing or the United States after they were found on Wednesday.
One of the officials said the US is working closely with the Canadians on the intelligence. US officials have also shared officials with UK officials, according to sources familiar.
Ukrainian officials on Thursday were considering terrorism, a missile strike and catastrophic engine failure as potential causes for the crash, as aviation authorities in Tehran said the jetliner was on fire before it came down.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense council chief, Oleksiy Danilov, said a meeting was taking place with Iranian authorities, where various causes behind the crash were “being studied,” including a theory that the plane was hit by an anti-aircraft missile, according to a statement on Facebook.
Conflicting claims about potential causes for the disaster began hours after the crash, when Iranian state media blamed technical issues and Ukraine ruled out rocket attacks. Within hours on Wednesday, officials in both countries had walked back those initial statements.
An initial report by the Iranian Civil Aviation Organization on the crash cites witnesses as saying the airliner was on fire while in the air and changed directions after a problem, turning back toward the airport. People on other aircraft at higher altitudes also saw the flames, Iranian officials say. Images of the wreckage show the plane torn to piece, its parts charred and strewn across a field.