The secrets of the Iranian Boeing: why Ukraine initially endorsed the theory that an unintentional error by the military was to blame

The secrets of the Iranian Boeing: why Ukraine initially endorsed the theory that an unintentional error by the military was to blame

And why the Ukrainian authorities are now unhappy with the investigation into the disaster of Flight PS-752

The secrets of the Iranian Boeing: why Ukraine initially endorsed the theory that an unintentional error by the military was to blame
The debris that was all that remained of Flight PS-752
Photo: representative office of the Iranian Red Crescent Society

The head of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, Dmytro Kuleba, had some fierce words of criticism last week for Iran’s report on the disaster that befell an airplane operated by the Ukrainian airline UIAwhich occurred on 8 January, 2020 just outside Tehran. Kuleba said that the finding that the plane was destroyed due to an error by an air defense system operator, who identified it as a “hostile target”, was a “cynical attempt to conceal the real reasons why the plane was destroyed”.

The Minister stressed that an analysis of the document received from the Iranian side had shown that Iran’s investigation was riddled with violations of international standards. He called the report itself a “compilation of manipulations, whose aim is not to get to the truth, but to clear Iran of any wrongdoing.” Today, his stance is similar to that of Canada and the UK. It has not been forgotten, though, that initially, the Ukrainian side accepted Iran’s position. Mind decided to try to find out why.

This version was created in partnership with the translation agency KLS.

What is the official version of events? On 8 January, 2020, a Boeing operated by the UIA, headed from Tehran to Kyiv under flight number PS-752, caught fire in mid-air, went into a tailspin, fell to earth and broke up on impact. The next day, the world learned that the plane had been shot down by a TOR-M1 anti-aircraft weapons system belonging to the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Those official reports and news stories contained an error, however. The aforementioned TOR-M1 was controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC, declared a terrorist organization by the USA in 2019. – Mind), which is only formally part of the Iranian Army. In actual fact, however, according to the Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, it is “a body like no other, with sweeping religious, political and military powers” led by a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, the director of military counter-intelligence, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

What is the IRGC? The Corps was set up in 1979 as an association of Shi’a militias, and 40 years later it has become a state within a state and an army within an army. By way of example, the IRGC controls all the “strategic industries” and commercial services in Iran, from the construction of dams and pipelines to automobile production,” as well as airports and the ‘black market’, estimated to be worth $12 billion a year.

How else can it maintain and meet the needs of its infantry (17 divisions, over 100,000 soldiers), its navy (frigates, corvettes, troop carriers, submarines, more than 18,000 naval personnel), its air force (more than 400 fighter jets and carrier planes and helicopters), its missile corps and its anti-aircraft divisions (over 45,000 servicepeople) and its special operations divisions, the Quds (military intelligence, diversionary activities and so on outside Iran, up to 50,000 soldiers)?

Why does the IRGC need tanks, ships, planes, missiles and sabotage specialists? An answer to this question was once provided by the former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmood Ahmadinejad: “The capitalist system and the existing world order have shown their inability to solve society’s problems properly and have therefore come to an end <...> The world needs to be controlled by people with the benevolence of the Divine Prophets...” We should clarify that the divine prophet is the 12th and final successor to the Prophet, Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi. One day – no-one knows when exactly – he will bring the Islamic world “prosperity and abundance of a kind never seen before” and “will take rightful vengeance on tyrants”. And this will end with the coming of the Islamic Messiah, according to Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, who said: “I foresee that people from the East will rise up, to demand the truth <...> They will rise up and take up arms, and only then will their voice be heard, but that will not be enough, and that outcome will not satisfy them. They will continue the resistance <...> The dead will be considered martyrs,” who will be summoned to the Last Judgment and given the gift of Resurrection...

Needless to say, only Shi’a Muslims will be considered martyrs (they make up around 90% of Iran’s population – Mind), and certainly not the 167 passengers and crew members, regardless of their religious beliefs or nationality – Iranian, Canadian, Ukrainian, Swedish, Afghan, or British, who died on 8 January 2020. They will not be resurrected.

These two quotes demonstrate why the high command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp cannot be held to account for what it did. All the more so given that, according to the results of the official investigation conducted by the Iranian side, the disaster supposedly occurred due to “a mistake by an operator”: "Following a tactical relocation, the relevant ADU (air defense unit) failed to adjust the system direction due to human error, causing the operator to observe the target flying west from IKA (airport) as a target approaching Tehran from the southwest at a relatively low altitude... [...] "Without receiving a go-ahead or response from the command center, he (operator) came to identify the target as a hostile one and fired missile(s) at the aircraft against the procedure planned."

Having studied the preliminary report (which was forwarded to Ukraine on 31 December 2020) on the course of the investigation and the final version of it (forwarded to Ukraine by 17 March 2021 at the latest), the governments of Canada and Ukraine lambasted it.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Marc Garneau, and Transport Minister, Omar Alghabra, said: “The report makes no attempt to answer critical questions about what truly happened. It appears incomplete and has no hard facts or evidence.” “It will be of no comfort to the families, because no account, a complete account with hard evidence to support it, has been provided,” added Ralph Goodale, an advisor to the Canadian Prime Minister on the downing of Flight PS-752.

At the 46th session of the UN's Human Rights Council, which took place in March, Ukraine added its signature to a joint statement by the UK, Canada and Sweden. Together with its partners, our country called upon Iran to “reply to the letter as soon as possible and certainly in advance of the Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur Callamard; immediately stop any harassment and intimidation of victims’ families, both in Iran and elsewhere; conduct a full and transparent criminal investigation and impartial judicial proceedings as part of their obligation to provide justice for the victims of this tragedy; provide a comprehensive account of the events that led to the downing”.

What prompted such a strongly-worded statement against Iran? And on what basis did the Ukrainian side state that the investigation was biased, the evidence presented was selective, and the conclusions in the report were deceitful?

It is highly likely that the reason was an unofficial hypothesis about how the incident happened, which has not been expressed publicly but is being widely discussed in diplomatic circles. Let’s examine everything chronologically.

On the morning of 8 January 2020, Tehran International Airport was operating as normal – Flight PS-752 was one of 19 flights that departed over the course of a few hours. And it was the only one that was delayed, allegedly because it was overloaded: in the space of just over an hour, airport staff took 80 suitcases’ worth of excess passenger baggage off the plane.

At 6:15 local time, according to an article published in The Guardian on 9 January last year, a US early-warning system detected the distinctive signs of missiles being launched and a big flash – the explosion. An Iranian missile battery had launched two missiles.

At 6:45 in Tehran, or 5:15 in Kyiv, Valerii Yevdokymov, the director of Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service, reported to the Secretary of the RNBO (the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine), Oleksii Danilov, that a plane crash “involving an as-yet-unidentified plane” had taken place. At 5:41 Yevdokymov informed Danilov that “the plane was Ukrainian”. At 5:47 Danilov informed the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who was in Oman at the time.

The president’s aide Andrii Yermak later told the press: “Yes, it's true that I was alongside Zelensky when he was told about it. The information was given to him by Ivan Bakanov (Bakanov was on holiday in Courchevel at the time). – Mind). The president immediately made a series of phone calls. After that, there were conversations with the secretary of the RNBO, with our ambassador in Iran, and with representatives of the security services. At that point, the decision was taken to return to Kyiv immediately.”

At 7:15, Kyiv time, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Iran made a statement: “There was an engine failure due to technical reasons. The idea that this was a terrorist attack, or a missile attack, is being ruled out.” On 9 January, however, the secretary of the RNBO, Oleksii Danilov, reported: “This was the necessary decision. We had to consider the scenario, whereby we would be left to deal with this problem on our own. The theory that the plane was shot down by a missile was assessed as having a probability of 74%... This line was defined by President Zelensky. All of our actions and steps corresponded to this line.”

And it was only on 17 January 2020 that the then- Foreign Affairs Minister of Ukraine, Vadym Prystaiko,   sought to “revoke” this theory: “As the Minister of Foreign Affairs, I wish to apologize for the actions of the embassy. That was an initial reaction, given in a state of shock... The embassy made a mistake – it failed to mention that that information was from the Iranian side,” Prystaiko announced.

At around 8:30 , the Ukrainian media, citing the President’s Office, reported that “Volodymyr Zelensky has cut short his trip to Oman as a matter of urgency and is returning to Kyiv.” Nevertheless, at 16:31 , President Zelensky said during a telephone call from Muscat that he was “holding constant consultations with our foreign partners”. And it was not until 19:30 that he flew out, on a chartered flight, from Muscat to Kyiv. Meanwhile, at 10:56 , it emerged that the black boxes – the flight and speech recorders – had been found.

At 2:37 the next morning, the plane containing Volodymyr Zelensky and his family landed at Zhuliany, and by 3:30 a meeting was taking place in the Presidential Office, at which Ivan Bakanov and Andrii Bohdan were absent. Those present at the meeting called for there to be “no manipulating of information, until the experts have investigated the circumstances of the tragedy.” At 9:00 on 9 January, however, Deutsche Welle, quoting “Iranian investigators”, reported: “The black boxes have been damaged, some of the recordings have been lost.”.

On the same day, the Russian newspaper Kommersant carried the hypothesis of a missile attack as the leading theory. “In particular, experts point to holes in the wreckage of the plane, clearly visible in the photographs taken at the scene of the catastrophe,” read an article in the newspaper..

At 11:45, however, the secretary of the SNBO, Oleksii Danilov, reported that there were seven competing explanations: “Four have been made public, while three are, for the time being, undisclosed.”

The ones being openly discussed were: a missile strike by a TOR-M1 anti-aircraft weapons system; a collision with an unmanned drone or other flying object; the destruction and explosion of the engine for technical reasons; an explosion inside the plane as a result of a terrorist attack.

The next day, the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, announced: “There is no doubt that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile system.” That certainty was not to last, though. At 19:42, the chairman of the SBU (the Security Service of Ukraine), Ivan Bakanov, having now returned from Courchevel, appeared in public for the first time since the start of 2020 – and rejected the RNBO’s account of the disaster: “Indeed, the theory about a missile strike involving a strike by an anti-aircraft weapons system is the one getting the most attention from the general public today. However, one need only open a user manual on surface-to-air missile-launchers for a whole host of questions to come up that require additional answers. Specifically, we are talking here about the distance of the missile’s flight, nuances regarding the control of the platform, and so on. All these matters are currently being examined...”.

His words were remarkably similar to the stance adopted by Iran. For example, the next day, the director of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzade, said: “From a scientific point of view, it is impossible for a missile to have shot down the Ukrainian plane <...> Therefore the theory that the plane was shot down with missiles can be ruled out...”.

This stance was hammered home by the Iranian government’s press secretary, Ali Rabiei: “All the reports (about a missile attack) constitute a psychological war on Iran.” And only the commander-in-chief of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, admitted, on 12 January, that Iran had “made a mistake, but it was unintentional.”

At 22:13 on 9 January, Volodymyr Zelensky addressed Ukraine’s international partners: “If you have any leads, we ask you to share them with us.” As of that evening, however, there were practically no leads at all at the scene of the disaster. As the news agency CBS News reported on 10 January: “Journalists have just visited the site where the plane came down. It is nine in the morning, local time. According to local residents, almost all of the pieces of wreckage of the plane were taken away on 9 January <...>. Some large pieces of fuselage and of the plane’s nose were removed, and the removal of the other fragments, and the victims’ bodies, began on the day of the disaster”.

Between 15 and 17 January 2020, the Office of the Prosecutor General and the SBU spoke to the Iranian side on three occasions, requesting legal assistance connected with the transfer to Ukraine of the on-board flight recorders, but on all three occasions their requests were refused: the black boxes were so badly damaged that “they could only be opened under certain laboratory conditions in a different country.” The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced, meanwhile: “Iran has neither the experience nor the technical capability to decode the black boxes.” The Ukrainian officials said nothing.

What secrets might the black boxes have held? One of the likely answers to these questions, according to Bellingcat, , is as follows. At 6:15 Tehran time, the device on board Flight PS-752 broadcast a set of flight information (the plane’s course and altitude, its speed of ascent, and so on), sufficient for the plane and the flight to be identifiable. We can trace what happened next by the second. 1.35 seconds later, Flight PS-752 becomes visible to the TOR-M1 anti-aircraft weapons system. 1.51 seconds elapse – and the first missile is launched. The distance to the target is approximately 11.2 km. The final set of flight information is recorded 1.58 seconds later.

2 seconds and 10 milliseconds elapse between the moment the first set of information was sent and the first missile’s impact. The target was not destroyed, however. The second missile was launched 2.22 seconds later. The distance to the target was approximately 7.2 km. 11 milliseconds later, the second missile hits the plane.

These events, as set out by Bellingcat, could be confirmed or denied by the evidence on the devices. However, according to the results of the investigation conducted in Iran that were passed on to Ukraine, the devices’ recordings, unfortunately, were not preserved.

Why did the Ukrainian embassy play along with the Iranian side on the first day? In comments shared with Mind, an expert – a former teacher at the Kyiv Higher Engineering Radio-Technical College (KVIRTU), who wished to remain anonymous, said that on 9 January 2020 (after Volodymyr Zelensky and Andrii Yermak returned from Oman), staff from the Presidential Office consulted veterans of KVIRTU. They wanted to know what a TOR-M1 anti-aircraft weapons system was, what the specifics of its military application were, and so on. It was after that, first in Kyiv, and later in Tehran, that the theory about an “unintentional error” by an operator, who had supposedly mistaken the Boeing-737 for some sort of a “cruise missile”, came into being.

Yet a few days later, information started being discussed in certain circles to the effect that the UIA plane was shot down intentionally on the orders of the high command of the IRGC, so as not to allow documents, items or people associated with the supply of arms for extremist organizations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Libya to escape from Iran.

Needless to say, the leaking of such information would have led to a dramatic escalation of the sanctions previously imposed by the USA on Iran. The former teacher from KVIRTU draws attention to an individual who died in the disaster, Yelena Malakhova, the director of the company SkyAviaTrans and the beneficial owner of Volaris Business (Edinburgh, Scotland, registered on 2016-05-10), whose airplanes conducted more than 40 flights to Afghanistan, the UAE, Yemen, Turkey and Libya between November and December 2018 and May and August 2019.

The expert suggests that the aircraft (UR-CMC, UR-COZ, UR-CRP. – Mind), which were registered in Ukraine, were involved in supplying arms, ammunition, and military equipment, and/or dual-purpose products for trouble-spots, particularly in Libya, where they were attacked and destroyed in July-August 2019. He also notes that, one-and-a-half years after the attack on the Ukrainian planes in Libya and a year after Yelena Malakhova’s death, the only official account of the purpose of flights conducted by UR-CMC, UR-COZ and UR-CRP is: “the transportation of humanitarian cargoes”. Nothing whatsoever is known about when, for how long, and for what purposes Malakhova flew to Iran.

As for the planes that transported the goods, including unmanned Bayraktar drones travelling from Turkey to Libya, journalists know only that they were operated by the company Europe Air, which later underwent a sudden change of name, and became OptGroupDon. The founders of Europe Air were Ukrainian citizens, and the official airport at which it is based is declared as Kryvyi Rih. If one keeps following the chain of founders-clients-operators, however, the trails left by Malakhova and the planes end up in the British Virgin Isles (Infinite Seal), in Armenia, Greece, India, Pakistan, the UK (a group of companies known by the umbrella name Veteran Avia), the UAE (Rayyan Air Pvt., Aerospace One, Agneet Sky, Aeolus, Aerospace Company, Aircon Beibars, Aristeidis A. Pappas etc.), Moldova, Romania and in Russia (Grixona Air).

Which of these trails could lead the intelligence services of Canada and the UK to connections between the late Yelena Malakhova and her business partners in Iran is something that we may find out when the Canadian or British authorities publish the results of their investigation into the disaster that befell Flight PS-752.

Grounds for optimism are provided in the report that came out in February, to the effect that the Canadian government and security services are studying an audio recording, , on which a person identified as Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, discusses the possibility that the downing of Flight PS-752 was a deliberate act. Zarif says it is possible that “infiltrators” (soldiers from the Quds special forces. – Mind) intentionally shot down the plane: "Even if you assume that it was an organized intentional act, they would never tell us or anyone else... "There would have been two, three people who did this. And it's not at all unlikely. They could have been special ops... There are reasons that they will never be revealed. They won't tell us, nor anyone else, because if they do it will open some doors into the defense systems of the country that will not be in the interest of the nation to publicly say”.

Speaking to an interlocutor whose identity the Canadian security and intelligence service (the RCMP) did not disclose, Zarif cites Russia as an example of a country that was accused of involvement in the downing of Flight MH-17 operated by Malaysia Airlines on 17 July 2014, but had never admitted its involvement. On that occasion, though, the Ukrainian authorities’ behavior was unambiguous and consistent.

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