New questions rise as Iran says it downed plane

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New questions rise as Iran says it downed plane

Sunday, January 12, 2020

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran's acknowledgement that it shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 people, raises new challenges for the Islamic Republic both externally amid tensions with the US and internally as it deals with growing discontent from its people.

The country did itself no favours by having its air-crash investigators, Government officials and diplomats deny for days that a missile downed the flight, though a commander said yesterday that he had raised that possibility to his superiors as early as Wednesday, the day of the crash.

While its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard took responsibility, the same commander claimed it warned Tehran to close off its airspace amid fears of US retaliation over Iran launching ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing US forces. That retaliation never came, but the worries proved to be enough to allegedly scare a missile battery into opening fire on the Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines.

Wider tensions between Iran and the US, inflamed after Iran's top general was killed in Iraq by a US drone strike January 3, have for the moment calmed. However, President Donald Trump vowed to impose new sanctions on Tehran and on Friday, his Administration targeted Iran's metals industry, a major employer. Meanwhile, thousands of additional US forces remain in the Mideast atop of the network of American bases surrounding Iran, despite Tehran's demands the US leave the region.

That sets the stage for Iran's further steps away from its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from in May 2018 over his concerns it didn't go far enough in restraining Tehran. Iran said after the targeted killing of General Qassem Soleimani that it would no longer abide by any of its limits, while saying United Nations inspectors could continue their work.

Further steps could spark an Israeli strike if it feels Iran is close to developing a nuclear weapon, something Tehran denies it wants but the West fears could happen.

Iran, through Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has sought to offer legal justifications for its decisions following Soleimani's death, including missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing US troops that caused no casualties. Now the country must contend with repercussions of its officials' wrong-headed denials in the days after the plane crash.

“There has been no missile launched in that area at that time,” said Hamid Baeidinejad, Iranian ambassador to the United Kingdom, in an interview Friday with Sky News, calling further questions on the allegation “absolutely unacceptable”.

Then the story changed early yesterday morning, with Iran's general staff of its armed forces saying the flight had been “targeted unintentionally due to human error”.

Baeidinejad later apologised on Twitter.

“In my statement yesterday to the UK media, I conveyed the official findings of responsible authorities in my country that missile could not be fired and hit the Ukrainian plane at that period of time,” he wrote. “I ... regret for conveying such wrong findings.”

Yet even the army statement itself raises questions, as it said the flight moved “very close to a sensitive military spot” belonging to the Revolutionary Guard.

“The altitude and the direction of the flight's movement were like an enemy target, so the aircraft was targeted unintentionally due to human error,” the statement read.

That's despite flight data for every Ukrainian International Airlines flight out of Tehran since early November show Wednesday's flight followed a similar altitude and flight path, according to flight-tracking website FlightRadar24. Planes leaving Imam Khomeini airport routinely take off going west as the Ukrainian flight did.

Nine other flights flew out of the airport early Wednesday morning before the Ukrainian airliner as well without encountering trouble. The Guard claims it asked Iranian authorities to shut down airspace in Tehran amid the ballistic missile strikes and fears of reprisals, but nothing happened.

Analysts have questioned the decision not to close Tehran's airspace in the days after the shootdown.

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