‘Psychological Warfare:’ Iran Rails at Western Governments Over Claims That It Shot Down Boeing Airliner
Iran accused Western governments of engaging in “psychological warfare” in claiming the Boeing Co. jet that crashed near Tehran on Wednesday was brought down by a missile, as the tragedy became further embroiled in geopolitical tensions.
“If they are certain and have the courage, they should share any finding that has scientific and technical backing,” Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, said in a televised briefing Friday.
The comments intensify a standoff over the crash, which came hours after Iran struck at U.S. bases in Iraq in response to the killing of a top general. Canada, the U.K. and Australia all said they have intelligence showing the plane was shot down, while U.S. sources have said two surface-to-air missile launches were detected soon after the Ukrainian jet took off, followed by an explosion.
Investigating civil air disasters typically draws on close cooperation between manufacturers, regulators and the country where the crash occured. Iran has invited Boeing and investigators from countries including the U.S. to help probe the crash, which killed 176 people, but indicated it won’t seek American assistance with decoding the 737-800’s black boxes. Instead, it will turn to Russia, Ukraine, France or Canada if it needs aid extracting data. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said it’s monitoring the situation.
Speculation about Iran downing Flight PS 752 in error has been further fueled by a video purportedly showing a bright dot streaking toward the plane, followed by a flash, along with reports that missile debris was found near the scene.
The jet’s flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders will be examined Friday in Tehran, Abedzadeh said, adding that claims about what happened should be considered speculation until all information is retrieved. Hours after the tragedy, Iran claimed that a technical error was the most likely cause for the crash.
More than a third of passengers on the jet were from Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday intelligence from multiple sources, including allies, “indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.” He added that “this may well have been unintentional.”
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison also said the evidence points to in that direction. In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said while a missile hit hadn’t been ruled out, it also hadn’t been confirmed, “as of today.”
A shoot-down would echo two other instances of surface-based missiles striking civilian jets. In 2014, pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine fired on and destroyed a Malaysia Airlines plane, while in 1988 an Iranian airliner was felled by a U.S. cruiser.
In both cases the doomed craft appeared to have been mistaken for hostile warplanes.
Some airlines aren’t taking any chances. Deutsche Lufthansa AG tweeted Friday that it turned around a plane headed to Tehran.
President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters in Washington on Thursday, said he had “suspicions” about why the plane went down, without being more specific. “It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood,” Trump said. “Somebody could have made a mistake.”
The Russian-made SA-15 missile, also known as a Gauntlet or a Tor, is suspected of being involved, according to a person familiar with the matter. They are short-range weapons designed to attack planes, helicopters and other airborne targets.
Boeing rose as much as 3.1% and was up 1.5% to $336.34 Thursday in New York following reports indicating the plane was shot down. If the plane was brought down by a missile strike, it could rule out a mechanical failure that would affect other Boeing aircraft.
The Ukrainian president’s office has said 45 Ukraine experts were working in Iran on the investigation and there are “several versions” for the cause under consideration.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone with his counterpart Zelenskiy on Thursday and agreed to form a task force involving their transport officials and foreign ministries, the semi-official Fars news agency reported, citing Rouhani’s deputy head of communications. Zelenskiy will discuss the crash with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the Ukrainian president said on Facebook.
The U.S. intelligence assessment is consistent with what some aviation accident experts have said. The apparent rapid spread of the fire combined with the sudden halt of radio transmissions from the plane after a normal climb aren’t consistent with previous crashes, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, the former head of accident investigations at the Federal Aviation Administration.
While Iranian officials initially said they suspected a problem with one of the plane’s engines, they retracted that in a preliminary report issued Thursday. The government also took the unusual step of setting up an investigative group to examine whether “any unlawful actions” initiated the fire on the plane, the preliminary report said.
Iran notified the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations, about the crash, which should trigger involvement of other nations in the investigation, including the U.S., the agency said in a press release Thursday.
Under rules known as Annex 13, the nation in which a crash occurs usually is in charge of an investigation. Other nations are permitted to take part, such as the country in which the plane was made. Since Boeing manufactured the Ukrainian jet, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board would have a right to participate.
It remains unclear whether NTSB will send a representative to the Iran because U.S. law restricts travel to that country and the exchange of certain data. The agency said in a statement on Thursday night that it had “designated an accredited representative to the investigation of the crash.”
The U.S. Treasury has granted waivers for U.S. investigators to work in Iran in the past, but it has been a cumbersome process. Also, the NTSB has at times declined to send investigators to countries it deems unsafe.
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