Iran's likely downing of airliner invokes an uncomfortable past

The likely Iranian downing of Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 is an opportunity for U.S. and Iran to start reengaging, at the technical level at least.

Tuesday night Iranian forces loosed a missile barrage at Iraq’s al-Asad airbase which hosts American and other coalition troops. The missiles were retaliation for the targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), by the U.S. on Friday, Jan. 3.

Hours after the Iranian attack on al-Asad airbase, reports emerged that flight PS752, a Boeing 737-800, crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. Iranian authorities immediately claimed the aircraft was attempting to return to the airport in response to an engine fire, but outside observers indicated the presence of punctures in the skin of the aircraft as possible signs of a strike by a surface-to-air missile (SAM). SAMs don’t always bring down a target by striking it, but use a proximity fuse to detonate a blast-fragmentation warhead that propels the fragments and missile debris at the target.

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Early Thursday, Jan. 9, the respected Jane’s Defense analysis firm advised its clients “Ukrainian airliner in Iran likely shot down by IRGC-operated SA-15 surface-to-air missile,” and hours later U.S. Department of Defense officials said they had a “high level of confidence” Iran shot down flight PS752.

Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization announced an investigation into the cause of the crash, and  the organization’s chief initially said the “black box” flight data recorders would not be shared with Boeing, though later reports indicated Iran had invited the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) into the investigation, joining Iranian and Ukrainian, and probably Canadian investigators.

An investigation of this magnitude is often a fraught affair, and it will be further tested by the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Iran. And Boeing, which would always be involved in investigating the crash of an aircraft it manufactured, may need an export license from the U.S. government just to speak to Iranian officials.

The IRGC may try to steer the investigation away from holding Iran accountable if it transpires its forces shot down the plane. The final report will probably contain everyone’s favorite theory, satisfying no one — but for the mullahs their political requirements will take precedence over accountability or the engineering.

For Iran’s rulers, the tragedy isn’t the loss of 176 lives — these are guys who killed 1,500 protestors two months ago — but that they won’t be able to continue to use the accidental shoot-down of Iran Air flight 665 in 1988 as part of their campaign of perpetual grievance against the U.S.

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In July 1988, the USS Vincennes, a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser, shot down Iran Air flight 665 which was flying from Bandar Abbas, Iran to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. All 290 people onboard were killed.

Vincennes, which was patrolling the Persian Gulf to ensure freedom of navigation, sailed into Iranian territorial waters to engage an Iranian vessel after one of its helicopters flying in international waters was fired upon by the Iranian vessel which was in Iranian waters. Amidst that action, the Vincennes crew misidentified Flight 665, which was climbing on a steady course and speed, for an Iranian F-14 fighter assuming a descending attack profile. Vincennes fired an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile downing the aircraft.

President Ronald Reagan apologized for the tragedy, and the U.S. and Iran eventually settled the matter in 1996 at the International Court of Justice. The U.S. did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to pay Iran over $131 million for death gratuities and a new aircraft. It later transpired that the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters at the time of the shoot down, but the U.S. did not admit this until 1992, though it maintained that the action was legitimate self-defense. 

The deaths of the 290 passengers still resonates with many Iranians, which is why Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, replied to President TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE’s claim the U.S. would attack 52 Iranian targets (one for each 1979 hostage) with “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655”

24 hours later: Whoops!

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So now the Iranians are about to have their own Vincennes moment, and they’re not going to like it.

Aside from the fact that it might cost them a lot of money (that $131 million would be $216 million today), they can no longer be so po-faced about the matter now that they screwed up as much as the Great Satan.

We can count on the accident investigators to stick to the engineering, at least as much as the IRGC wants that to happen, but Iran would be wise to use the opportunity to pursue some expert-to-expert connections in the aviation safety area. Baby steps, baby steps…

Iran’s “own goal” made it the bad guy in this round, and just as it was gathering support from many media outlets, the Democrats, and anyone else who opposes Trump. It’s going to be hard to spin killing two carloads of IRGC officers and their Iraqi confederate into a bigger tragedy than the death in the air of 176 civilians who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time but — goodness knows — they’ll try.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).