Statements by senior U.S., British, and Canadian officials that a missile strike led to the fatal January 8 crash of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 in Iran parallel the analyses of experts interviewed by Current Time.
The early-morning crash, which killed all 176 passengers and crew aboard the Tehran-Kyiv flight, came in the wake of Iranian missile strikes against two U.S. military bases in neighboring Iraq.
The investigative journalism site Bellingcat, known for its work on the 2014 crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, reported that an Iranian anti-missile test base near Tehran could have played a role in downing the Boeing 737-800.
In an RFE/RL interview for Current Time, Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev elaborated about how the team reached its conclusion.
Their work began with an online video, authenticated by The New York Times, that shows an in-air explosion of an elongated, cylindrical object moving diagonally through a darkened sky. The Times and Bellingcat geo-located the video to Paranda, a Tehran suburb west of the Iranian capital’s international airport.
In one section of Paranda, Bellingcat investigators found multi-storey buildings that “are very similar to those seen in the video itself,” Grozev said. “This gave us more than 90 percent certainty that this is the very place” from which the video was shot.
The camera, according to Bellingcat, was aimed in the direction of the trajectory of the flying object, presumed to be a plane. Using the Pythagorean theorem (with the estimated distance between the recorded images and the filming site, and the plane’s last recorded altitude), the digital investigators deduced that the explosion had occurred 3.6 kilometers from the camera.
With data from FlightRadar24, an online flight tracker, they matched the object’s trajectory with that of Flight 752. They then “built a new triangle” that shows the area from which the missile was launched and where it hit the object.
“We could calculate the angle at which the missile was moving in relationship to the trajectory of the plane,” Grozev continued. “Knowing this angle and knowing the distance, we could calculate the sector from which the missile was launched. This sector amounts to approximately 6 to 6.5 kilometers.”
That sector includes “only one place for a possible missile launch” – a known test base for Iran’s anti-aircraft defenses, Grozev said.
On January 10, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that intelligence suggests an Iranian missile “likely” downed the Boeing. Citing intelligence reports, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have drawn similar conclusions.
Canadians and Iranians account for most of the individuals killed in the crash.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose country lost 11 citizens in the crash, initially responded to allegations about an Iranian missile as “unconfirmed.” After speaking with Pompeo on January 10, he expressed gratitude for U.S. information about the crash, but, following a subsequent discussion with Prime Minister Trudeau, cautioned against “speculation.”
“Our goal is to establish the truth,” he posted on Facebook on January 9.
The head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzadeh, on January 10 described the missile theory as unsubstantiated, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported.
In an interview with SkyNews, Iranian Ambassador to London Hamid Baeidinejad underlined that Tehran is “confident” that no missile was launched at the time of the plane’s crash at 6:24 a.m. on January 8.
Aviation and military experts interviewed by Current Time have also urged the need for caution, but underlined that a technical failure alone would not have caused the plane to lose its communication link with ground control.
Vladimir Bekish a former missile researcher for the Soviet and Russian armed forces, stated on January 9 that he believed a surface-to-air missile or an anti-aircraft installation not far from the airport’s runway had likely downed the plane.
“For me, it’s completely obvious that it’s a plane accidentally shot down,” said Bekish.
Bellingcat’s Grozev described the missile as a Tor-M1, but Bekish declined to identify the likely missile.
A heat-seeking Tor missile “would have hit the engine, but this would not take the communications system out,” he observed. A US-made Stinger or a Russian-made Igla, both portable, heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, also could have been used.
Tehran initially ventured that an engine fire had caused the crash, but now cites the need to wait for Iranian and Ukrainian investigators’ conclusions. Emphasis continues to be placed on potential technical causes, however.
On January 9, Abedzadeh stated that the UIA flight had turned right and attempted to return to Tehran’s airport before crashing.
Ukrainian test-pilot Mikhail Lampik questions that claim.
“As far as I know, they would have made a turn to the left” to return to Tehran’s international airport from the plane’s last known location, he said.
“This also indicates that the plane was either out of control or something very serious was going on there because the crew, in this situation, would have made a left turn.”
Lampik concurred with Bekish’s hypothesis about a possible missile strike.
Both Bekish and Lampik were also skeptical about the theory cited by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danylov that a drone also could have caused the crash.
Radar would have made an Iranian military drone, described by Beshik as “a serious machine,” clearly stand out, they observed. The plane’s crew could then have alerted ground control about an emergency situation.
But that, according to Iranian officials, did not happen.
Bellingcat investigator Grozev, however, questioned the reliability of Iran’s reports.
On December 9, “we saw in images how Iranian investigators, with bulldozers and heavy equipment, moved all the evidence [from the crash site] into one place” before international investigators had arrived, he said.
“This is absolutely irresponsible. And, therefore, we do not trust the information that comes out of Iran.”
Iranian Ambassador to London Baeidinejad rejected as “absolutely absurd” footage of bulldozers clearing the crash site.
Iran has now invited the United States to join the investigation into the crash. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has stated it will join the Iranian-led inquiry.