Iran may have admitted that it accidentally fired the January 8 missile that destroyed Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, but pro-government TV channels in Russia, Iran’s strategic partner, are describing the United States as the real culprit for the deaths of the plane’s 176 passengers and crew.
On January 12, one day after Iran’s admission of guilt, influential TV news presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads the parent company of the government-run Sputnik news agency, told viewers that “it’s difficult to dispute” Iran’s point that the January 3 killing of Major General Qasam Soleimani, the country’s top military commander, by a U.S. drone in Baghdad sparked the tensions “that, in the end, led to tragedy.”
Mainstream Russian media have presented Soleimani, who ran Iran’s foreign-based special operations, as a talented strategist who struggled valiantly against Afghan drug trafficking and Islamic State terrorists.
By ordering the drone attack on Soleimani in Iraq, U.S. President Donald Trump “essentially declared war on the Islamic Republic” of Iran itself, Kiselyov alleged on the state-run Rossia-1's Vesti Nedeli news program.
Without that order, the crash of Flight 752 “would not have happened at all,” concurred Channel One’s U.S. correspondent Georgy Olisashvili.
The Iranian missile launch that downed the Boeing 737-800 came shortly after Iranian missile attacks on two U.S. military bases in neighboring Iraq as retribution for Soleimani’s slaying. The commander’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which fired on the Ukrainian flight, claimed that the plane was taken for a “hostile target” when it flew close to an IRGC base outside of Tehran.
Moscow has at least one reason for wanting to downplay Iran’s responsibility for the catastrophe: statements by western and Ukrainian officials that a Russian-made Tor-M1 missile system likely fired the fatal shot.
In 2017, Iran paid Moscow an estimated $700 million for 29 of the Tor missile systems, the Associated Press reported.
Allegations that the IRGC used a Tor system to down Flight 752 appears to make one senior Russian politician concerned that Russia itself will be seen as to blame for the tragedy.
On January 11, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, urged western media to stop focusing on allegations that “a Russian-made missile” or “a Russian missile” had caused the crash.
“It’s absolutely immoral to try to continue to play the Russian card in this extremely tragic situation,” Kosachev said.
Unless information from the flight’s black boxes proves the strike was premeditated, the case of the shoot-down should be “closed,” he concluded.
Tehran does not appear to have confirmed publicly yet what missile system was used. It announced on January 14 that several individuals, including the person who filmed footage of the missile striking Flight 752, have been arrested in connection with the investigation into the crash. No identities were provided.
Details about why the missile-system operator mistook the Boeing for a “hostile target” also have not been provided.
One Twitter user, @ain92ru, who routinely covers Russian and Soviet missile systems, commented to RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the operator of a Tor system, if he had his “head on his shoulders,” should have been able to tell that the Ukraine International Airlines plane was a civilian aircraft.
The Tor receives data about any detected object’s speed, coordinates, altitude, and anticipated trajectory.
The Boeing’s speed and altitude would not have matched those of a cruise missile, fighter jet, or drone, said the St. Petersburg, Russia-based expert, who declined to be identified.
Known within NATO as SA-15, the Tor system comes with two radars: one uses a parabolic antenna that rotates 360 degrees and can scan a distance of roughly 25 kilometers; a second helps aim missiles.
But to “work effectively,” the Tor needs information from additional large radars as well as its own built-in radar, pointed out Leonid Nersisyan, editor of the Russian military journal New Defense Order Strategy.
If it relies only on its own radar capabilities, “then the likelihood of a mistake will increase,” Nersisyan said.
Flight 752, though, was not the only civilian flight in the air over Tehran in the early morning of January 8, Current Time has reported. Online flight tracker FlightRadar24 shows three other airlines in the area of the Imam Khomeini International Airport shortly before the Ukrainian flight’s departure at 6:12 a.m.
As the flight prepared to take off, Indonesia’s flagship carrier, Garuda Indonesia, was flying about 23 kilometers to the southwest, en route to Indonesia’s Kualanamu International Airport.
Iran’s private Karun Airlines was flying over the Imam Khomeini International Airport on a domestic flight, while Mahan Air, another private Iranian carrier, had a small plane in the air approaching Mehrabad International Airport on the edge of Tehran.
Apart from its alleged proximity to the IRGC base, what caused the Ukraine International Airlines flight to stand out is unclear.
As yet, pro-government Russian outlets show no sign of looking for the answer.
Initially, they adopted Tehran’s first explanation that an engine fire or “technical malfunction” had caused Flight 752’s crash. To reinforce that argument, TV talk-show guests claimed that the Boeing 737-800 routinely breaks down and that the Ukraine International Airlines crew was inadequately trained to handle emergencies.
When U.S., British, and Canadian officials attributed the crash to a missile strike, Russian broadcasters termed the statements “a provocation” against Iran and floated the alternative theory of a collision with a U.S. drone.
“As soon as evidence came out about a collision with a U.S. drone, Washington came out and tried to scare the entire world,” declared St. Petersburg’s Channel Five, as footage of U.S. President Trump’s January 8 statement about the Soleimani killing played in the background.
Several hours before Tehran’s own admission of a missile strike, the Russian TV-digital outlet RT, seen as a Kremlin mouthpiece, posited that U.S. and British media were advancing the missile theory “to demonize Iran” and “justify” the U.S. drone-killing of Soleimani.
Now that Iran itself has changed tact on Flight 752, pro-government outlets maintain that Tehran earlier did not have complete information about what actually occurred on January 8.
By implication, they advise a policy of forgive and forget: Accept Iran's apology for its mistake and forget the reports about a Russian missile.
With additional reporting by AP, Fars, IRNA, Novaya Gazeta, and TASS