This week, the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board of the Islamic Republic of Iran released its final report on the January 2020 incident that resulted in the death of all 176 people on board Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. The report was promptly rejected by foreign countries whose citizens and permanent residents were on the flight. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba described it as demonstrating the regime’s impulse “not to establish the truth, but to whitewash the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
In this sense, the report is being described as the continuation of a phenomenon that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, which involved the commercial airliner being targeted by two missiles from the arsenal of Iran’s hardline paramilitary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As soon as the news broke of the resulting crash, Iranian authorities began issuing statements that attributed it to a “technical problem” with the aircraft itself. This explanation was soon called into question by satellite images and other sources of global intelligence, and after three days the regime was forced to acknowledge the role of “human error” at the controls of Iran’s missile defense system.
The attempted cover-up helped to fuel protests on university campuses and city streets across more than a dozen Iranian provinces. Many participants condemned the IRGC by name and even burned images of the late commander of the institution’s foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force. Qassem Soleimani had been killed by a US drone strike on January 3, about five days before the Flight 752 incident, which took place against the backdrop of Tehran’s attempted retaliation – a series of ballistic missile launches aimed at US military positions in eastern Iraq.
Although Iranian state media initially attempted to claim that the strike had succeeded in killing a number of American personnel, it was later revealed that there had been zero fatalities. The reputational damage from that failure was compounded by the ineffective cover-up and the ensuing protests, which recycled the stark anti-government slogans associated with two previous nationwide uprisings: one in January 2018 and another in November 2019. Furthermore, the protesters’ explicit defiance of the IRGC was a sign of the ineffectiveness of authoritarian crackdowns on those earlier uprisings.
In 2018, the regime killed an estimated 60 protesters and arrested thousands of pro-democracy activists. The judiciary also issued public warnings that persons deemed to be leaders of the protest movement could be sentenced to death. This brutality was greatly magnified the following year, when the nation’s highest officials urged the restoration of order by any means necessary, and the IRGC responded by opening fire on crowds of protesters in various different cities, killing 1,500 over the course of just several days.
According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, authorities also arrested at least 12,000 individuals who were believed to be involved in the November uprising. And by all accounts, many of these detainees were still being subjected to torturous interrogation the following January when mass protests over the IRGC’s missile strike broke out. The persistent defiance led to a situation in which the regime was noticeably desperate to save face, both at home and abroad. And this in turn has led to speculation that Tehran’s disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic was in some measure intentional.
Certainly, the desire to project an image of regional strength and domestic legitimacy prompted regime authorities to cover-up the first cases of Covid-19 inside the Islamic Republic. Documents obtained from Iran’s National Emergency Organization confirmed that those cases had been identified no later than January, though authorities’ first public statement on the topic did not come until mid-February. This permitted those same authorities to encourage and actively facilitate large-scale participation in January’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic – a celebration that was no doubt deemed especially important for its capacity to reverse some of the damage done to Tehran’s public reputation by the preceding protests.
To the extent that the denial of Covid-19 concerns helped to focus attention on the regime’s own message for that anniversary, it also brought both domestic and international attention to the military equipment, including a wealth of missiles, that is typically put on display in such celebrations. The IRGC’s downing of Flight 752 arguably made the regime’s boasting about missile development even more significant and even more controversial than it otherwise would have been. This remains the case to this day, as the Investigation Board’s findings promote discussion of the danger that the IRGC poses, whether intentionally or unintentionally, with its ever-growing arsenal of ballistic missiles and other such weapons.
It may therefore have been something more than a coincidence when the release of the final report was accompanied by an Iranian state media broadcast featuring images from the IRGC’s “missile cities” – vast tunnel systems used to house missile stockpiles and ostensibly protect them from foreign attack. The broadcast also included commentary from both Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami and the IRGC’s high commander, General Hossein Salami.
“We will remain involved in the regional field as well as in the area of defensive and missile power, and will continue to achieve high goals in these areas with our full strength,” said Hatami, while Salami emphasized that public displays represent only a “small section” of the IRGC’s “great and expansive missile capability.”
Hatami’s promise of ongoing development seems to reflect trends that have apparent throughout the period of heightened tension with the US that followed the Soleimani killing and the missile strikes on Iraq’s Ain al-Asad base. Although Iranian state media did not identify the locations of the “missile cities” featured in the broadcast, Western outlets said they were most likely from areas of recent construction. Separately, the National Council of Resistance of Iran held a press conference on Thursday to provide more details about the IRGC’s missile activities, including the fact that at least two new tunnels had been built at one of the bases from which the attack on Ain al-Asad was launched.
On Wednesday, regime authorities marked an annual date dedicated to the IRGC, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei personally praised the hardline paramilitary and encouraged the continuation of missile development, among other activities. “God willing, you will always be victorious,” he said via state media. “Continue your good activities with power.”
Naturally, neither Khamenei nor any other leading official publicly acknowledged the findings from the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board – not on the date of that report’s release and certainly not on the IRGC’s national day, when many of the same officials were openly praising its missile stockpiles. But foreign critics seized upon the report as an opportunity to highlight longstanding concerns about the IRGC’s pursuit of ever more sophisticated missile technology, including ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. The Iranian regime was once technically barred from working on that particular category of weapon, but the 2015 Iran nuclear deal led to the adoption of a new United Nations Security Council resolution featuring weaker language, which simply “called upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid such work in cases where the weapon was “designed to be capable” of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The NCRI’s press conference on IRGC missile sites proved to be an outlet for renewed appeals for Western powers to recommit to the earlier, stronger language and to adopt more assertive policies aimed at pressuring the IRGC and the entire regime to revise its missile-centric strategies for national defense and regional force-projection.
In the past, NCRI affiliates have gone so far as to say that the Flight 752 disaster was an aspect of that force-projection, having been undertaken intentionally with the aim of using “human error” as a cover story. Although no prominent figures in Western policy circles have explicitly endorsed this interpretation of events, some have at least entertained the possibility. In a December 2020 report, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions stated that there was no clear evidence of a deliberate attack but also that Tehran’s explanations for the incident “present many inconsistencies” and “do not add up.”
This view was evidently shared by representatives of Ukraine, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Afghanistan. And there is no sign of this changing in the wake of the final report. Now those nations are looking to sources of information other than the Iranian regime, and the government of Canada has teased the forthcoming release of a report from its own Forensic Examination and Assessment Team. Of the 176 victims of the disaster, 55 were Canadian citizens and 30 were permanent residents.