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Evidence is mounting that Iran accidentally shot down the Ukraine flight

If true, this significantly raises the death toll in the US-Iran conflict.

Rescue workers at the site of the Ukrainian plane crash in Shahedshahr, southwest of Tehran, Iran, on January 8, 2020.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Iran may not have killed US troops in its retaliatory strikes in Iraq on Tuesday night, but it’s looking more and more like the country did kill civilians, albeit likely unwittingly: the 176 passengers of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.

Just a few hours after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two US military targets in Iraq Tuesday night, Flight 752, which was flying from Tehran to Kyiv, crashed minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport, killing all 176 people on board — half of whom were Iranian.

Iran has so far maintained the crash was not caused by any military action. But multiple news outlets are now reporting that unnamed US officials have assessed that Iran shot down the passenger plane with an anti-aircraft missile.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking during a Thursday afternoon press conference in Ottawa, said his nation — which had at least 63 of its citizens on board — had intelligence pointing to Iran as the culprit.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) speaks during a news conference alongside Minister of National Defense Harjit Sajjan (center) and Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, on January 9, 2020.
Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images

“We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence,” Trudeau said at a press conference. “The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. It may well have been unintentional.”

Trudeau declined to elaborate on the evidence but said these developments confirmed “the need to have an in-depth investigation into this matter.”

Moments after Trudeau finished speaking, the New York Times published a video purportedly showing a surface-to-air missile hitting the jetliner in midair. While the video is grainy and the camera is far from the scene, it shows an explosion at the point of impact. The plane, according to the Times, didn’t immediately come down; ablaze, it flew back toward the airport in Tehran before exploding and dropping quickly.

Iran’s culpability still has not been officially confirmed, and the investigation is ongoing. But the evidence increasingly suggests the Islamic Republic is responsible. If true, it would mean the death toll in the current US-Iran conflict has risen significantly, and horrifically.

“War is never cost-free”

The narrative after Tuesday’s strikes was that President Donald Trump had “won” the flare-up with Iran. Killing military leader Qassem Soleimani not only avenged the murder of an American contractor by an Iranian-backed militia but also deterred Tehran from further escalating the months-long standoff. That assessment was based on each side losing only one citizen before tensions calmed.

But that narrative is increasingly being called into question as evidence grows that nearly 180 people may have lost their lives as a result of Iran’s decision to aggressively retaliate against the US.

Flowers at the portraits of nine crew members who were among 176 people on board the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, at Boryspil International Airport, in northern Ukraine.
Pavlo Bagmut/Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Based on the New York Times video and other reports, it looks like the Islamic Republic’s air defenses near Tehran were on high alert and mistook the commercial jet for an American warplane. If that’s the case, it was an accident.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t avoidable. Iran and those pushing for conflict — including some current and former top Trump administration officials — own this grave error.

“War is never cost free,” Ilan Goldenberg, an Iran expert at the Center for a New American Security, tweeted on Thursday afternoon.

It’s a brutal historical irony that another airliner has fallen amid a US-Iran squabble. In 1988, the missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people on board. The US warship thought the passenger plane was a fighter jet.

That tragedy lives long in Iranian memory, and the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, tweeted about that incident in a Twitter quarrel with Trump on Monday.

It will take time for more information to come out about who is to blame for the crash. But for now this tragedy reminds us that these conflicts — even ones that last a short time — have severe consequences.

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