Iran admitted on Saturday that it mistakenly shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger jet, killing all 176 passengers and crew onboard.
The armed forces joint staff in a statement said human error caused the disaster and promised to bring those who made the mistake to justice and make reforms to its air defence system.
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, said “the Islamic republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake” adding that investigations would continue to identify the reasons and prosecute those behind “this big tragedy and unforgivable mistake”.
The Boeing 737-800 bound for Kyiv crashed moments after take-off from Tehran on Wednesday, hours after an Iranian missile strikes on US forces based in neighbouring Iraq. The Iranian attack was in retaliation for the US killing of Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani days earlier.
“Iran’s armed forces were at the highest alert levels to respond to threats [made] by the US president and armed forces to hit back [at] many targets in Iran in case of [Iran’s] retaliation,” the statement added.
The armed forces statement said the aircraft “while turning, looked like getting close to a sensitive military centre of the guards.” Radar systems identified it as a “hostile object . . . and by human error . . . unintentionally shot down the plane” and caused “martyrdom of some dear countrymen and killing of foreign nationals”.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minster, wrote on Twitter: “Human error caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”
The US, the UK and Canada said on Thursday that there was evidence that the aircraft had been mistakenly shot down. But Iranian authorities denied it and accused the US of trying to divert attention away from the funeral of Soleimani, in which millions of Iranians participated, and also to protect Boeing — the troubled US manufacturer of the 737-800 — and its share price.
Iranian judiciary officials ordered legal action to identify those responsible for the incident.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on the armed forces to look into “shortcomings or possible faults” that might have led to “this sorrowful incident”.
The acknowledgment on Saturday could cause public uproar in Iran and is a huge embarrassment for the Islamic republic and the Revolutionary Guard.
Mohammad Fazeli, an Iranian sociologist, said people might forgive human error but “how about days of denials and efforts to cover up” the truth. The question for people would be, he said, “what else are they hiding or are able to hide?”
Iranians have drawn parallels with the Sanchi oil tanker collision in 2018 and a fire in a high-rise building in 2017 which caused at least 54 deaths, for which no one was found guilty.
“If it were an Iranian plane and if all passengers were Iranians, the pilot or engine failure would have been blamed for the crash,” said Nasim, a 40-year-old woman. “This acknowledgment comes only because foreign governments made a huge fuss.”
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky called for the investigation to continue without artificial delays and obstacles. “This morning was not a good one, but it brought the truth,” he said.
“We expect from Iran assurances of readiness for a full and open investigation, bringing those responsible to justice, return of the bodies of the dead, payment of compensation, official apologies through diplomatic channels,” he added in the Facebook posting.
According to Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s foreign minister, 82 of the passengers were Iranians, while 63 were from Canada, which has large Ukrainian and Iranian diasporas. Eleven of the dead, including nine crew members, were Ukrainian. The others included three Britons, three Germans, 10 Swedes and four Afghans. Iranians onboard included students and graduates from some of the country’s most prestigious universities.
The aircraft took off at 6:13am local time from Tehran’s international airport and crashed about five minutes later, according to local media, which added that it came down near Sabashahr, a suburb south-west of the capital.
Iranian officials said the flight recorders — the plane’s two black boxes — had been found, but insisted the data had to be examined in Iran.
On Saturday, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation, said the black boxes would be sent to France for examination.
Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv