Iran blames misaligned radar for shooting down of Ukrainian jet

Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation has released the most detailed report to date on the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet by the country’s military in January, blaming human error and a mistake in aligning a radar system for the tragedy in which all 176 passengers and crew died.

The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800, flight PS 752, was bound for Kyiv and “following a normal path” on January 8 when it crashed moments after take-off from Tehran, according to the report released at the weekend. 

The tragedy happened hours after Iranian missile strikes on US forces based in neighbouring Iraq, in retaliation for the death of Qassem Soleimani, a senior commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, in a US drone strike days earlier.

Tehran first denied any mistake had been made and said the aircraft had crashed for yet-to-be-determined reasons. But three days later and following international pressure the government acknowledged the military had mistakenly shot down the plane.

The report by the Iranian civil sector’s investigation team — which has not yet been finalised — said that on the night of the tragedy, there had been a “procedural change” in which the military took over issuing flight clearances from the civil sector. This meant that “only the flights already detected and cleared for flight operations by the defence network could be permitted to start up”.

The Imam Khomeini international airport’s air traffic control unit requested clearance for the Ukrainian jet. This was issued and the jet proceeded toward the flight route. 

“After the relocation of one of the air defence units of Tehran . . . a failure occurred due to a human error in following the procedure of system north alignment,” according to the report.

“At 02:44:21 [ Co-ordinated Universal Time], the operator notified the specifications of the detected target to the Co-ordination Center . . . The target was, in fact, the very PS 752 flight . . . detected by the system as a target approaching Tehran”.

It added that the system operator “lacked awareness” of the relocation of the air defence unit and “without receiving any response from the Co-ordination Center” fired two missiles, which he was not authorised to do without receiving the command. “Probably one of the two warheads was able to cause functional damage to the aircraft,” the report said.

“At 02:48:23, the aircraft crashed into a playground . . . then kept hitting the ground and bouncing on a route towards the airport, making the aircraft pieces, victims’ property, objects and body remains disintegrate completely in a vast area”, it added.

The catastrophe caused uproar in Iran, where there were street protests, as well as internationally.

Canada, the UK, Ukraine, Sweden and Afghanistan — all of which had nationals killed in the incident — reached an agreement this month over “a common approach” over how to respond, according to the Canadian government. Their demands include holding the Iranian regime “accountable”, the downloading of the flight recorders in France and “criminal investigation”.

The content of the aircraft’s black boxes remains unclear as the Islamic republic has so far refused to hand them over to Ukraine or Canada, which lost 63 nationals in the disaster.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told Canada’s foreign minister Francois-Philippe Champagne last month that Tehran was ready to begin compensation talks and hand over the black boxes.