There are still major doubts over Iran’s explanation of why it shot down a passenger aircraft that had just taken off from its main international airport, raising questions over the safety of flying to Tehran, according to aviation and security experts.
Iran claimed that its air defense corps near Imam Khomeini International Airport mistook Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 for a cruise missile and activated anti-aircraft missile system, killing all 176 people on board.
The military said the plane was misidentified as a “hostile target” when it flew towards a “sensitive military center” belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, on the same day that Iran launched ballistic missiles against its neighbor Iraq.
This explanation “needs to be treated with a certain amount of skepticism,” said Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who pointed to several reasons why the account is difficult to take at face value.
The first of these is the plane’s altitude.
According to Iran’s state news agency, the Boeing 737 jet was last reported to have reached a height of about 8,000 feet before it disappeared from radar. This puts it well above the height of a cruise missile, which usually fly at much lower altitudes to avoid detection.
“Cruise missile attacks tend to come in pretty low. Never mind 8,000 feet, [cruise missiles fly] at 100 meters, coming in very low, for survivability reasons so they don’t get detected,” said Barrie. “So I can’t quite understand how that error was made,” Barrie said.
The size of the target is a second reason.
When it comes to the dimensions of a civilian aircraft and a cruise missile, Barrie said, an airplane is several times larger.
“Your radar return of those two things is going to be very, very different,” he added.
A report from the New York Times on Wednesday also showed verified footage that the plane was hit by two missiles, fired 30 seconds apart, prompting further suspicion.
Iran issued an apology on January 11, after three days of denial, claiming responsibility and saying it would upgrade its systems to prevent future tragedies. The judiciary has arrested several people for their role in the atrocity, its spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili said on Tuesday, without providing further details.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said that those responsible would be put on trial in a “special court,” which the “whole world will be watching,” adding that more than one person would be charged with the crime.
However, given the fact the Iranian armed forces shot down the plane minutes after it took off from its main international airport, commentators have voiced concerns over the safety of Iranian airspace.
The missile attack on the plane “exposes a dangerous lack of coordination between Iran’s military and its civil aviation authorities,” said Ian Williams, an International Security Program Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Arabiya English.
Before taking off from an airport, civilian aircraft always ask the control tower for permission to fly. The control tower routinely asks the air defense force for permission to fly three times before any aircraft takes off and the Ukrainian plane was no exception, according to Iran International, which quoted Iranian MP Abolfazl Mousavi Biuki on Monday.
This means that the air defense force was aware that the aircraft was taking off. They would have a record of the aircraft identification, its route, its heading, its speed and altitude. The lack of communication between civilian and defense airspace control could indicate that the military did not follow protocol, said Barrie.
“The assumption is unless you are absolutely certain you are looking at a genuinely legitimate target, if anything pops up on the radar in that area, your first assumption is this is a commercial aircraft,” Barrie added, noting that the usual response is to not act without certainty.
Since the airliner was attacked, several commercial airlines, including Australian carrier Qantas and Bahrain’s Gulf Air, rerouted flights away from Iranian airspace to avoid danger. Lufthansa has cancelled its flights to Tehran, but other carriers including Emirates continue to fly there.
“Given the potential presence of active, uncoordinated air defenses near [a] civilian airport, I would say the risks of flying over Iran are at least marginally higher than airspace without such conditions,” Williams said.
The government has announced an investigation into the atrocity, but observers have voiced concerns after the authorities reportedly bulldozed the site of the debris. The attack sparked outrage across Iran, with hundreds of students accusing the government of trying to cover up its crime.
Tommy Hilton, Al Arabiya English, contributed to this article.