Downing of jet in Iran reveals its wider woes

Downing of jet in Iran reveals Islamic Republic's wider woes

Some have questioned how the flight could even be allowed to take off, as the Guard insists it suggested commercial aircraft be grounded amid the tensions

People standing and analysing the fragments and remains of the Ukraine International Airlines plane Boeing 737-800 that crashed outside the Iranian capital Tehran on January 8, 2020. (Credit: AFP Photo)

The Ukrainian jetliner stood ready for takeoff at Iran's main international airport bound for Kyiv, packed with passengers and so many bags on one of the cheapest routes to the West that the ground crew rushed to unload some luggage to make its weight for flight.

Nearly an hour late, Tehran air traffic controllers finally cleared Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 for takeoff, carrying a newlywed couple, Iranian students bound for universities in Canada and others seeking a better life abroad.

The plane would be shot down only minutes later by Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

Up until the moment soldiers fired missiles at the Boeing 737-800, Iran had faced decisive moments on how to respond to the world around it amid tensions with the U.S.

Those decisions ultimately doomed the flight and all 176 people aboard, and also led to the public being “lied to" for days afterward, in the words of the country's foreign minister.

What Iran decided then and later also reflects beyond the immediate tragedy, offering a glimpse inside of the country more than 40 years after its Islamic Revolution.

The downing of the jetliner highlights the limits of the civilian arm of Iran's government against the absolute power held by the nation's Shiite theocracy and the paramilitary forces beneath it. The anger that followed shows the choices Iranians make in the country's sanctions-crushed economy and the unabated rage still lurking on its streets.

How Iran responds as a whole will affect a coming year that appears poised for further tensions. Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers hangs on a single thread, one that permits international inspection of its atomic sites and is already threatened.

President Donald Trump, facing an impeachment trial and an election campaign, promises to impose ever-harsher sanctions. Meanwhile, more economic protests in Iran remain a threat as well.

“The regime understands that Iranian society is a powder keg right now and that if it's not careful, it'll lose control of the situation really quickly,” said Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran analyst at the U.S.-based RAND Corp. “So, it's using every tool at its disposal to avoid losing control.”

Even before Trump entered the White House, he campaigned on a promise to tear up Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. That agreement saw Tehran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Reached under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, the deal kept Iran's atomic program under constant surveillance by international inspectors and unable to produce enough material for a nuclear bomb if Tehran sought one.

Trump, however, unilaterally withdrew America from the arrangement in May 2018, saying it didn't go far enough in limiting Iran's program, its ballistic missile stockpile and its influence through proxies in the wider Middle East.

Iran waited a year before beginning to break limits of the accord, each move slightly narrowing the estimated year it would need to have enough fissionable material for a nuclear weapon. Tehran insists it doesn't seek an atomic bomb, although the U.N. nuclear watchdog says evidence shows the Islamic Republic once had an organized weapons program that it ultimately abandoned in 2003.

Through the summer, tensions steadily rose with mysterious oil tanker attacks that the U.S. blamed on Iranian mines, as well as drone and missile assaults on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. Iran denied involvement in those assaults, although it did acknowledge shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seizing tankers.

Then came the December death of a U.S. contractor in Iraq, following by an American airstrike on Iranian-backed forces allegedly behind the attack. Iranian-backed militias violently protested and attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The crisis reached a fever pitch Jan. 3 as a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed the prominent Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who oversaw Iran's proxies in the region. Trump later threatened to bomb 52 sites in Iran, including those “important to the Iranian culture" if Tehran retaliated.

Iran vowed revenge, and early on Jan. 8 it launched ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing American troops, causing injuries but no fatalities among soldiers there.

Iranian officials informally warned journalists and others that any American retaliation would bring missile strikes on Dubai and Haifa in Israel.

Yet commercial planes kept flying through Iranian airspace. Before the Ukrainian jetliner, nine other flights left Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport. The airplane was delayed nearly an hour to remove luggage from the overweight flight, investigators say.

But Iran isn't alone, as the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight No. 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 shows. Pakistan remains the sole recent country to close its airspace over the risk of war as it did in 2019 amid tensions with India.

“Countries cannot be relied upon to close risky airspace, nor issue damaging guidance on their own territories,” wrote Mark Zee, the founder of the air-safety organization OPSGROUP. “Governments have more pressing motivations: Trade, tourism, commerce. This will not change.” Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 took off at 6:12 a.m. Its flaming wreckage would fall from the sky only six minutes later.