WASHINGTON/TEHRAN – Iran announced Saturday that its military “unintentionally” shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed early Wednesday, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.
The plane was shot down hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad. No one was wounded in the attack on the bases.
A military statement carried by state media said the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military center” of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its “highest level of readiness,” it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States.
“In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit,” the military said. It apologized and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies.
Those responsible would “immediately” be brought before military justice, the general staff of the armed forces said Saturday in a press release. “We assure you that by pursuing fundamental reforms in operational processes at the armed forces’ level we will make it impossible to repeat such errors.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy demanded Saturday that Iran punish those responsible and pay compensation. “We expect Iran … to bring the guilty to the courts,” he wrote on Facebook, calling also for the “payment of compensation” and the return of remains.
Iran’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash is likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders in the wake of Soleimani’s killing. The general was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians had turned out for funeral processions across the country.
But the majority of the plane crash victims were Iranians or Iranian Canadians, and the crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices.
President Hassan Rouhani blamed the tragedy on “threats and bullying” by the United States after the killing of Soleimani. He expressed condolences to families of the victims and called for a “full investigation” and the prosecution of those responsible.
“Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that regrettably missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people,” he wrote on Twitter. “Investigations continue to identify & prosecute this great tragedy & unforgivable mistake.”
“A sad day,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster. Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.”
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Iran had denied for several days that a missile caused the crash. But then the U.S. and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos of the incident.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lowered the nation’s death toll from 63.
“This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission,” said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash.
“I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face.”
It was Iran’s worst civil aviation disaster since the U.S. military shot down an Iran Air plane over the Persian Gulf by mistake in July 1988, killing all 290 people on board.
Video footage of the UIA 737, which the New York Times said it had verified, emerged and appeared to show the moment the airliner was hit. A fast-moving object is seen rising at an angle into the sky before a bright flash appears, which dims and then continues moving forward. Several seconds later, an explosion is heard and the sky lights up.
Many airlines from around the world canceled flights to and from Iran in the wake of the crash, or rerouted flights away from Iranian airspace.
Nations around the world have called for restraint and de-escalation, and fears of a full-blown conflict have subsided after U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that Iran appeared to be standing down after targeting the U.S. bases in Iraq.
Trump ordered Soleimani killed after a Dec. 27 rocket attack on a joint U.S.-Iraqi base near Kirkuk resulted in the death of an American contractor. The U.S. blamed the attack on an Iran-backed militia and killed its leader in the same strike that targeted Soleimani.
In Canada, where Trump is deeply unpopular, some blamed him for creating the standoff that appeared to have led to the disaster.
“A president, bruised by impeachment, orders a dramatic assassination, and five days later a plane lands in Toronto, with 138 empty seats, taxiing up to a terminal filled with sobbing loved ones,” Maclean’s magazine columnist Scott Gilmore wrote of the connecting flight that arrived in Canada almost empty.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has at times had a rocky relationship with Trump, was careful not to say the U.S. strike had led to what happened in Tehran. “I think it is too soon to be drawing conclusions or assigning blame or responsibility in whatever proportions,” he told reporters. On Friday, he met privately with families of some of the victims .
Even some who regularly criticize Trump said the White House couldn’t be held responsible.
“Trump’s assassination of Soleimani may have been foolish and adventurist, but I can’t see how he can be blamed in any way for the shooting down of the airline,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “This sad incident speaks to the incompetence of and lack of discipline in the Iranian Army.”
Ukraine was also mourning: It lost two passengers and a crew of nine in the crash. For days, airline workers, relatives of victims and ordinary people have been bringing flowers to a makeshift memorial for the crew — nine framed portraits surrounded by candles — at the Kyiv airport.
Ukrainian flights out of Tehran are often full of Iranian-Canadians and Iranian students studying in Canada, particularly after the long holiday break. Going back and forth via Kyiv is one of the most affordable routes between the two countries, and avoids stopovers in the United States, which is difficult for most Iranians.
At least 17 Canadian universities have confirmed that they lost students, professors or researchers.
Until the crash, the killing of Soleimani had seemed to end fairly quietly — at least for the U.S. A stampede at the general’s funeral, jammed with mourners, had left 56 people dead and Iranian missile strikes against Iraqi bases housing American troops had injured no one. Iran appeared to have carefully calibrated the missile attacks to avoid causing further U.S. retaliation, giving early warning to its Iraqi allies to avoid casualties.
Iran has “concluded proportionate measures,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted after the missile barrage.
Canada is one of America’s oldest and closest allies, but Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, noted Thursday that Trump had said nothing about Canada’s tragedy.
“The unconcern certainly comes across,” he said. “Not a word of sympathy.”
By Friday afternoon, there were no indications Trump had mentioned the Canadian victims.
Instead, in a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, on Thursday, he told crowds that Soleimani’s killing was “American justice” while deriding Democrats for questioning his decision to carry out the attack without first consulting Congress.
He also noted that America had been ready to retaliate if Iran’s missile attacks had caused any casualties.
“You have no idea,” he told the cheering crowds. “A lot of people got very lucky.”