Iran has acknowledged that they shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, a Boeing 737 flight from Tehran to Kiev. There was immediate speculation of a missile, photos of the aircraft that seemed to suggest that as a cause, and ultimately video evidence.
The speed of the admission, and that they shared this on twitter surely says something about the modern age.
A sad day. Preliminary conclusions of internal investigation by Armed Forces:
Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster
Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 11, 2020
Nine things strike me about this incident, and the admission:
- Iran shot down the plane. Iran is unequivocally at fault. Anyone that wants to talk about other, broader causes needs to make this point forcefully first.
- The proximate cause of the situation that made this incident happen was killing Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani. Escalating tensions in the Middle East has unintended consequences, and those consequences are usually bad. While it’s never possible to know exactly what those are in advance (they’re unintended!) they’re always bad. That counsels in favor of de-escalation.
- Iran is the only one that cannot credibly make this point. We can observe that mistakes happen when tensions are heightened, but Iran is the one that made the mistake. It’s awful that Iran points the finger at the U.S. in their apology.
- Iran acknowledged fault quickly. That’s a remarkable admission not just in the context of traditional diplomacy, it runs counter to expectations created where Iran was clearing the debris area around the crash and refused to turn over black boxes to U.S. investigators and Boeing.
- They couldn’t really have denied it. Even controlling the territory where the crash occurred several governments had credible intelligence of the missile, and that about 12 seconds after impact there was an explosion. Satellites monitor the activity on the ground, including any attempted coverup. There’s a wreckage that tells a clear story. The debris field makes clear how the plane came apart (and in what order, too). Recovered bodies reveal how injuries occurred. Aircraft fragments would have chemical residue.
- The U.S. never apologized for shooting down Iran Air 655 in 1989. That wound still lingers in Iran, indeed Iran’s President invoked that tragedy in response to President Trump’s referencing Iran’s taking U.S. hostages in 1979. The world has changed a lot, Iran is acknowledging responsibility on Twitter, I have to think the U.S. response would need to be different today.
- If there was a threat of terrorism against U.S. airlines, that risk now falls dramatically. Iran cannot be responsible for taking down another plane. They’ve lost any moral high ground with the world community, and additional action risks Europe siding with the U.S. imposing sanctions.
- Iran promises to take steps to prevent this from happening again. The principles of crisis management are universal. Standard corporate and government apologies always include promising to take steps to ensure that mistakes aren’t repeated. More often than not there isn’t any follow through. Was it really just bad technology that led to misidentifying the aircraft, Iran had chosen not to upgrade their tech but now they will? Doubtful. Will Iran put greater checks in place to ensure more people sign off on strikes and those people have to be really sure? They’d likely lose the ability to hit targets. If they believe they’re under attack they will respond, although they’ll be more likely to hesitate in the immediate term.
- What matters most here are the 176 people who died. As obvious points are made about foreign policy and conflict, how this relates to escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran, it’s important to remember the 176 real people who lost their lives and the families who lost their loved ones. This is a terrible tragedy and hopefully remembering each one of these people as individuals can help us maintain the proper perspective on those larger issues, that there’s a real human toll that’s felt by people caught in the middle that have no responsibility or ability to influence the events around them.
It’s this last point, I think, that’s most important.