U.S., British, and Canadian officials say it’s highly likely that Iran’s military accidentally shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner outside of Tehran early on January 8, just hours after Iran launched ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops.
But Iranian authorities say it is "impossible" that a missile brought down Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752 shortly before dawn on January 8, killing all 176 people on board.
Official Tehran's statement contradicts U.S. President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- who cited multiple intelligence sources indicating the plane was probably shot down by Iranian air defenses just minutes after it left Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport.
“It’s a tragic thing. But somebody could have made a mistake -- on the other side,” Trump said.
“We know this may have been unintentional,” Trudeau told reporters in Canada, where more than one-third of the victims were residents.
But Iranian government spokesman Ali Raberi denounced those who say the Boeing 737-800 was shot down by his country's air defenses. He said such claims are a form of “psychological warfare” against Iran.
Iran has also criticized Kyiv’s announcement that a team of 45 Ukrainian investigators sent to Tehran on January 9 will investigate whether the crash was caused by a missile strike.
Ali Abedzadeh, the head of Iran’s civil aviation agency, said on January 10 that it is “scientifically impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane” and that “such rumors are illogical.”
UIA Flight 752 originally was scheduled to take off from the Tehran airport at 5:15 a.m. for a flight to Boryspil International Airport in Kyiv. But its departure was delayed by one hour.
Just hours earlier, Iran had launched a ballistic-missile attack on two Iraqi air bases that house U.S. forces in response to a January 3 U.S. air strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.
When civilian air-traffic controllers in Tehran finally gave the Ukrainian airliner clearance for take off, Iranian air defenses were on high alert and bracing for potential U.S. retaliatory air strikes.
According to the aviation website Flightradar24, visibility was good at the time of the plane’s departure.
Officials from the airline say the plane had an “excellent, reliable crew” that was very experienced.
The aircraft was only 3 1/2 years old and had its last scheduled maintenance just two days earlier, on January 6.
Flight data, which is openly available online, shows that the airliner climbed at a normal rate after takeoff until it reached an altitude of 2,400 meters. Then the aircraft’s data stream suddenly disappears.
Experts say the Boeing 737-800 is designed to keep flying if there is engine failure. They say that in the case of engine failure, flight data also normally would show the plane’s climb becoming less steep.
That, crash investigators say, suggests some kind of catastrophic event happened suddenly while the aircraft was in the air.
The New York Times says it has confirmed the authenticity of a high-resolution video it received that purportedly shows a missile being fired at Flight 752.
The New York Times reported that the person who filmed the incident did so after hearing “some sort of shot fired.”
Investigators at the British-based open source investigative website Bellingcat say they geolocated the video footage and verified that it was shot from a residential area in Parand, a suburb to the west of Tehran’s international airport.
The video shows a small explosion occurring near the plane from what appears to be a projectile. The plane did not explode but was set ablaze.
The aircraft continued flying briefly and had a spreading fire on it before it crashed into a fireball -- spreading debris across a wide area of open fields.
An initial Iranian report said the plane was in flames before it hit the ground but did not send any distress signal.
Some Iranian officials questioned Western claims, saying the plane would have exploded immediately if it had been hit by a missile.
But Pentagon and senior U.S. intelligence officials, as well as an Iraqi intelligence official, say they believe Iran fired two Russian-made Tor missiles at the aircraft -- leading a satellite to detect infrared flashes from two missile launches followed by another flash of an explosion.
Tor air-defense missiles do not directly hit their targets but rather are designed to explode near an aircraft and strike it with a blast of shrapnel rather than hitting a plane with a direct hit.
Regardless of what caused the airliner to crash, what remains unknown for now is the kind of coordination that was in place at the time of the crash between Iranian civilian air-traffic controllers and the Iranian armed forces.
It remains unclear why the Ukrainian airliner’s flight was put on hold for one hour, or how the flight could have been allowed to proceed without careful warnings from civil aviation authorities and Iran's military.
It is not known who gave an “all clear” order that allowed the civilian passenger flight to take off while nearby air defenses reportedly remained on high alert so soon after Iran’s ballistic-missile attack on the Iraqi air bases.
It also remains unclear whether civilian air-traffic controllers informed Iran’s military that the Ukrainian airliner was taking off.
Immediately after the first Iranian investigators arrived at the crash scene, Tehran claimed that the disaster was the result of a technical malfunction.
But a growing number of international experts are rejecting Tehran’s claim that a missile strike was impossible.
They suggest Tehran may be trying to hide embarrassing details about the disaster.
Those concerns have been bolstered by photographs posted online from the scene of the crash showing a bulldozer lifting a large piece of plane wreckage.
Other pictures show the crash site looking as if it had been bulldozed or grated over by officials.
They also showed passersby walking around the fields where the plane crashed and scavenging things. There is no sign in the photos of investigators and the site is not cordoned off.
Bellingcat investigator Giancarlo Fiorella says his organization has confirmed that the photo of the bulldozer was taken at the site of the crash of UIA Flight 752.
He says the presence of such machinery at the site is “disturbing” because, if the airliner was shot down, the area is a “potential crime scene.”
The U.S. television network CBS quotes Iranians at the scene of the crash as saying that authorities already have disturbed the crash site by using bulldozers to push the plane wreckage into large piles that were later removed.
But the Iranian ambassador to Britain, Hamid Baeidinejad, said those reports are "absolutely absurd." He added that "a plane accident is a very technical issue" and that no one "can judge" what actions should be taken except for the "experts."
Larry Vance, an aviation investigator who served more than two decades on Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, told RFE/RL that the plane’s instantaneous loss of communication with officials at the airport was more indicative of an exploding bomb or missile.
Vance said that if the Ukrainian airliner crashed as a result of a mechanical malfunction, as Iran claims, “it would be something quite unique.”
“Imagine what type of engine event would have to happen in order for it to disable the airplane completely, make it unflyable,” Vance said. “That is not an engine fire. That is more like an engine explosion. Those engines just don’t do that. There is no history of them exploding like that.”
Global affairs analyst Michael Bociurkiw says Iran “needs to keep politics out of the crash investigation, invite international experts and investigators to determine the cause, and keep grieving families well informed.”
Bociurkiw is a former Ukrainian-Canadian monitor with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who was among the first international experts to reach the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in separatist-controlled territory of eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
Bociurkiw says if there was any lesson from the MH17 crash and other crashes near conflict zones, it is that there is no way the Ukrainian Airliner should have been flying out of Tehran after the Iranian ballistic-missile attack a few hours earlier.
But the Ukrainian airliner that crashed was not the only flight that took off from Tehran that morning, with reports that there were five others before it that had departed.
“Other airlines cancelled their flights two or three or four days before, knowing that the risk level was very high,” Bociurkiw told the Canadian television broadcaster CBC News. “That to me indicated that the risk was very high.”
“I hope, given what has come out right now, that the Iranians will step up to the plate and open up the investigation to everyone,” Bociurkiw said. “These were noncombatants in that plane. These were innocent men, women, and children -- and the Iranians need to recognize that and allow very wide access, including for Canadian experts.”