American Officials Say Intelligence Points To Iran Shooting Down Ukrainian Airliner (Updated)

The aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff while Iran was on high alert for an American counterattack after firing missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq.

Remains of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 after it crashed in Iran in January 2020.
Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

U.S. officials say they are "confident" in intelligence that an Iranian surface-to-air missile brought down an airliner belonging to Ukraine International Airlines. Ukrainian investigators had already said that they were considering this possibility as they explore the incident, which followed a recent and unprecedented Iranian missile strike targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. This all comes as Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which carried out the strikes on targets in Iraq, says that it was on high alert for an immediate American counter-attack and was prepared for an ensuing conflict that might have lasted days or weeks. 

Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, a Boeing 737-800, crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport at approximately 6:12 AM local time on Jan. 8, 2020. The flight was heading to the Ukranian capital Kyiv and had 176 crew and passengers on board, all of whom died in the subsequent crash. Video footage that subsequently emerged showed the plane engulfed in a fireball before it hit the ground. The incident occurred hours after the Iranian missile strikes aimed at American troops in Iraq first began.

Newsweek was among the first to report that U.S. defense and intelligence officials, as well as an Iraqi official, had told them that they also believe an Iranian surface-to-air missile brought down the 737. CBS News and other outlets have now also reported that U.S. officials believe this is what happened, based on various sources of intelligence. 

These include indications that Iranian air defenses activated their radars at around the time of the crash and at least two infrared signatures from possible surface-to-air missile launches seen by U.S. satellites. The satellites also reportedly saw the plane itself bursting into flames.

The latter information very likely came from U.S. early-warning infrared satellites, especially the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation, the capabilities of which the War Zone has explored in detail in the past. These same satellites were very likely among the early warning systems that U.S. President Donald Trump and other officials say helped ensure U.S. personnel in Iraq had time to seek shelter and escape any casualties from the Iranian missile strike.

The War Zone was the first to discuss how SBIRS or other space-based early warning systems could help in determining what happened to PS752, as well as help prevent casualties from the Iranian missiles, as part of our live coverage of the attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, stating:

"Something to remember is that there is a tremendous amount of intelligence data to analyze from America's space-based early warning network of infrared sensing satellites alone. Where the launches emanated from and where the missiles impacted, even the ones that missed, would have been recorded. The system can detect smaller infrared events as well and its data that could be used to help confirm if the Ukrainian airliner was indeed shot down. This same network, which is about to get even more capable, would have given near-instant warning that a launch was underway, which in turn gave American and allied troops time to take cover and prepare for the incoming bombardment. You can read all about this system in this past piece of ours."

An initial report from a Ukranian team investigating the accident say that they cannot rule out the possibility that Iranian air defenses shot down the airliner. They also say that they are looking into whether a terrorist bombing or some sort of engine failure was the cause. Unconfirmed Ukranian media reports say that sources among the investigation team have said that there is no evidence of an engine fire or and engine "overheating," as Iranian media reports have claimed. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also said publicly that he cannot say "categorically" that the airliner was not shot down, but insisted it was too early to say for sure one way or another. 63 Canadian nationals were on the flight, the largest single national contingent onboard behind Iranian citizens.

It remains unclear what weapon may have brought down the Ukranian airliner, but unconfirmed pictures have emerged online since purporting to show part of a 9M331 missile near the crash site. This missile is associated with the Russian-made Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile, which NATO also refers to as the SA-15 Gauntlet. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operates a number of Tor-M1 systems. These are capable of engaging targets at short-to-medium ranges. PS752 would have been flying relatively low at the time of the crash, having just taken off from the airport in Tehran.

Iranian officials have already categorically denied that it shot down the aircraft, highlighting the large number of Iranians onboard and describing reports of a shoot down as "psychological warfare." Outlets in Iran were first to report the crash and almost immediately stated that a "technical fault" was responsible.

Iranian officials have also since said that the aircraft appeared to turn back toward the airport in Tehran before plummeting into the ground and that air traffic controllers never received a distress call. Iran has reportedly recovered the black boxes from the aircraft, but says that they are damaged. The aircraft's manufacturer, Boeing, has said that it is seeking additional information, but the lack of formal diplomatic relations with Iran, as well as extensive U.S. sanctions, means the company cannot readily send its own personnel to the country to assess the situation. The regime in Tehran has already stated that it is not interested in American help with the investigation, anyways. Ukraine has asked the United Kingdom to aid in determining exactly what happened.

All told, while the publicly available evidence may remain circumstantial, it is not hard to see how Iranian air defender may have mistakenly shot down the airliner. Earlier today, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Aerospace Force, which primarily oversees the country's ballistic missile arsenal, said that his forces had been on alert for an American counter-attack following the initial missile strikes on bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq and they had been prepared for much larger conflict. There had also been reports that the Iranian Air Force had scrambled combat jets to guard the country's skies against possible retaliation.

Iranian air defenders could very well have made an error in identifying PS752 as a threat. This would hardly be the first time that an incident like this has occurred. In a particularly infamous recent incident, a mixture of Russian and Russian-backed forces in Ukraine shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over that country in 2014, possibly believing they were aiming at a Ukrainian military aircraft. In 2018, Syrian air defenders also shot down a Russian Il-20 surveillance plane while attempting to respond to Israeli airstrikes.

Iran itself is no stranger to such things, with the regime in Tehran often bringing up the U.S. Navy's shootdown of Iran Air Flight IR655 in 1988. This remains an extremely controversial incident that the United States maintains was a tragic accident. American and Iranian officials reached a settlement in international court over the shootdown in 1996, agreeing to pay compensation to the families of the passengers. Iran most recently made major public references to IR655 following President Trump's threat over the weekend to strike 52 targets in Iran, including cultural sites, representing the 52 Americans Iranian revolutionaries held hostage in Tehran between 1979 and 1981.

An accidental shootdown of a commercial airliner by Iranian air defenders would be extremely embarrassing to the Iranian regime, which has sought to present itself as the objective victim of American aggression since the U.S. drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, former head of Iran's Quds Force, in Iraq last week. It's unclear how the crash of PS752 might impact U.S.-Iran tensions now as more evidence continues to emerge suggesting Iranian forces shot it down.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 1:25PM EST—

President Donald Trump has not confirmed the reports that U.S. intelligence points to Iran shooting down the Ukrainian airliner, but has now told reporters that it was flying through a "rough neighborhood" and "I have a feeling that...something very terrible happened."

The United Kingdom has said that it is looking into the new information and that it is "very concerning." Canadian officials have also reportedly received the U.S. intelligence and find it "credible."

UPDATE: 2:25PM EST—

An video has emerged on social media purporting to show an Iranian surface-to-air missile impacting flight PS752, but there has been no verification of its authenticity as of yet.

UPDATE: 3:30PM EST—

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has now publicly said that his country has evidence, including intelligence from its allies, that points to Iran having shot down the Ukrainian airliner. It "may well have been unintentional," he added.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made similar remarks.

UPDATE: 8:10PM EST—

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will reportedly take part in the investigation into the fate of PS752. 

There are also unconfirmed reports that Iran may have cleared the crash site and bulldozed the remains of the wreckage into a single large pile, which, deliberately or not, could have compromised physical evidence that the aircraft was shot down.

UPDATE: 1/10/2020—

More reports have emerged that the crash site has been virtually cleared, rather than cordoned off and preserved for a deep forensic investigation, and that there is no security in place to prevent scavengers or anyone else from removing potential evidence of what happened to flight PS752. 

In addition, an interesting New York Times report from 2012 has re-surfaced that details a very similar incident in 2007, in which one of Iran's then largely new Tor-M1 systems accidentally fired on commercial airliner near the country's nuclear facility in Natanz. Thankfully the missile in that case missed.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com