The Ukrainian jet that crashed near Tehran this week, killing all 176 people on board, was probably shot down accidentally by Iranian surface-to-air missiles, U.S. and Canadian officials said Thursday.
U.S. intelligence analysts reached the conclusion after reviewing satellite images and other intelligence that indicated Iran forces fired two Russian-made SA-15 antiaircraft missiles at the jet shortly after it took off from Tehran’s airport, a U.S. official familiar with the finding said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had made public similar conclusions earlier in the day.
“We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence,” Trudeau said. “The news will undoubtedly come as a further shock to the families who are already grieving in the face of this unspeakable tragedy.”
The crash came just a few hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against Iraqi military bases housing American troops amid a confrontation with Washington over the U.S. drone strike that killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general last week.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, said they had no certain knowledge of Iranian intent. But they said the airliner could have been mistaken for a threat.
The New York Times published a video Thursday that it said appears to show the plane being hit by a missile.
President Trump suggested he believed Iran was responsible but wouldn’t directly blame the Iranians. He dismissed Iran’s initial claim that it was a mechanical issue.
“Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” Trump said, noting the plane was flying in a “pretty rough neighborhood.”
“Some people say it was mechanical,” Trump added. “I personally don’t think that’s even a question.”
Iran on Thursday rejected the claim that the plane was brought down by its missiles, calling the claim “a very well-calculated move” and “a lie” by the United States.
“It is regrettable that the US government’s psychological operations system and its informed or uninformed allies are adding salt to the pains of the bereaved families with these lies and victimize affected families to reach their goals in the psychological operations,” Ali Rabiei, an Iranian government spokesman, said in a statement.
The statement also included an invitation to Boeing, as the airliner’s manufacturer, and to France, where the engine was built, to participate in the investigation
The airline’s owner, a Ukrainian company, has already sent investigators.
It was not immediately clear how the U.S. and its allies would react to the downing of the airliner. At least 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians were among the dead.
Despite efforts by Washington and Tehran to step back from the brink of possible war, the region remained on edge after the killing of the Iranian general and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes. U.S. troops were on high alert.
The latest assessment comes just a day after Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they hadn’t had a chance to review the intelligence on the incident. Both spent much of the day at the White House and on Capitol Hill briefing the administration on the killing of Gen. Qassem Suleimani and the resulting attacks by Iran.
A preliminary Iranian investigative report released Thursday said that the airliner pilots never made a radio call for help and that the burning aircraft was trying to turn back for the airport when it went down.
The plane crashed just minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, the main airport for travelers in Iran.
Iranian officials initially blamed a technical malfunction for the crash.
Both of the “black boxes” that contain data and cockpit communications from the plane had been recovered, though they sustained damage and some parts of their memory were lost.
Hours before the plane crash, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had issued an emergency flight restriction barring U.S. carriers and pilots from flying over areas of Iraqi, Iranian and some Persian Gulf airspace, warning of the “potential for miscalculation or misidentification” for civilian aircraft due to heightened political and military tensions.
Ukraine has a grim history with missile attacks, including in July 2014 when one such strike downed a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
The plane in this week’s crash was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, officials said. Many passengers were believed to be international students attending universities in Canada; they were making their way back to Toronto by way of Kyiv after visiting family during the winter break.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he planned to call Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the crash and the investigation.
The crash ranked among the worst losses of life for Canadians in an aviation disaster. The flag over Parliament in Ottawa was lowered to half-staff, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to get to the bottom of the disaster.
Times staff writer Chris Megerian and the Associated Press contributed to this report.