Iran Won't Come Clean About Its Plane Crash Tragedy


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The culture of reflexive conspiracy-theorizing that pervades the Islamic Republic can sometimes catch out its own officials. Responding to reports that the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down by an Iranian missile, the head of Iran’s civil aviation organization protested that this was out of question, because his country’s air-defense systems were too sophisticated to make such a mistake.

This is exactly the kind of absurd reasoning that attended the Iranian regime’s narrative of its most famous civil aviation tragedy before this week: the 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by an American warship, the USS Vincennes, which mistook the airliner for an Iranian F-14 fighter jet. All 290 lives on board were lost. Viewed through the paranoid lens of the Islamic Republic, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. Navy was not an accident at all — because, surely, the American radar systems were too sophisticated to make such an error.

Just a few days ago, in the aftermath of the U.S. drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, President Hassan Rouhani darkly invoked the Flight 655 tragedy while responding to President Donald Trump’s claim that, in the event of an Iranian attack, the U.S. had 52 targets against which to retaliate.

“Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290,” the Iranian leader tweeted, along with the hashtag #IR655. Rouhani went on to add: “Never threaten the Iranian nation.”

That tweet has not aged well.

Alas, it might be too much to expect the Iranian regime to acknowledge that hideous tragedies can and do occur in the fog of war, much less to try and clear the miasma, mostly of its own making, that envelops much of the Middle East.  

The tragedy of Flight 655 was one of the reasons Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decided, a few months after it happened, to accept that Iran was in a hopeless position in its war with Iraq, and agree to end the eight-year conflict. Iran was already taking a pounding from Saddam Hussein’s forces and Khomeini worried that the U.S. would either get involved directly or equip Iraq with even more sophisticated weapons.

Under his successor as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic continues to threaten “harsher revenge” for Soleimani. Tehran’s tame terrorists and militias across the region claim to be planning their own retaliation. This is calculated to thicken the fog, never mind that it might lead to more tragedy.

Simultaneously, the regime is determined to obfuscate the facts around Flight 752’s tragic end. While claiming to welcome international assistance in investigations, it appears to be engaged in a frantic cover-up. A CBS crew that visited the site this morning found the debris had for the most part been removed, and scavengers were picking through anything that remained. There was no security, no effort to cordon off the scene, and no sign of any Iranian investigators.

This makes the regime’s claims about the plane’s flight recorders look highly suspect. After initially refusing to hand the “black box” over to Boeing Co., the aircraft’s manufacturer, Tehran is now saying that it was damaged in the crash — but that it intends to download the recordings.

That Iranian officials are unable to keep their stories straight allows little optimism that they will allow the facts of Flight 752’s final minutes to come to light. One official has suggested that the investigation would take a year, possibly two. That should give the regime plenty of time to cook up more elaborate conspiracy theories.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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