Iran will not easily forget the dawn of January 8, 2020. And perhaps never will. Revenge for General Qassem Soleimani was stained not by the blood of American soldiers in the Middle East but rather by the passengers and crew of the Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, which left Tehran-Imam Khomeini international airport and was shot down by a missile a few minutes after take-off.
The disaster immediately appeared to be more than just a fatal tragedy. The timing of the incident, the night that Iran launched its operation against two USA bases, caused people to predict something different. And in fact, it was. After the initial news of the Ukrainian plane crash and the first accusations from western intelligence, Iran admitted it: the Boeing 737 that left Tehran was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery. It was due to the tragic error of mistaking the civilian airplane for an enemy military plane or missile.
The confession from the Iranian government, which came with condolences from Hassan Rouhani and Mohamed Zarif and the dramatic confession of the commander of the aerospace force of the Pasdaran, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, did not, however, lay to rest all the questioning. Something from that never-ending night in Tehran is still not clear.
The missile that hit the Boeing
According to the press, the Ukrainian Boeing was hit by two 9K330 missiles from the Russian-made Tor-M1 mobile air defense system, and this was never denied by Tehran. In a video of the incident, two contrails from the missiles can be seen 21 seconds apart: a time factor that we will come back to.
Iran bought 29 Tor-M1 models (Sa-15 “Gauntlet” in NATO code) in 2006. The system is used for short/medium-range air defense since it can engage targets with radar up to 25/30 kilometers away and hit them at a maximum distance of 12, with engagement that ranges from 10 to 6,000 meters.
The 9K330 missile, which is used by the Tor-M1, is radar-guided with a proximity fuse. This means that the radar directs it to the target and its warhead doesn’t explode on contact but rather at a predetermined distance. When it is launched, it rises vertically to a height of 20 meters then tilts with the help of jets, and heads towards the target. Its safety distance, or the minimum distance beyond which the missile is active, is 1,500 meters.
Timing and distance: something doesn’t add up
Everything makes it seem like the Iranian version is correct. However, according to the missile data, something from the video (so far one of the rare “direct” sources for explaining the mystery) doesn’t perfectly add up. And it would be advantageous to analyze it to understand if there is, in fact, a second theory other than this just being the tragic decision of an Iranian soldier.
In the video, we cannot see the missiles take off vertically, but this could be a matter of perspective, but what’s more significant is that the sequence shows the second missile hit the aircraft, a fatal hit, 21 seconds after the first.
This is a unique dynamic, but to this, we can add another issue, which could be more resolutive. Assuming that the missiles were fired from the military base near the airport, the second missile would have hit the airplane at a distance less than the minimum safety distance for activation of the warhead on the missile that the Tor is armed with.
All sources agree that the 737 was flying at an elevation of 2,400 meters above sea level, which is a more than sufficient distance for the missile to “activate”. But, we must subtract the elevation of Tehran from this, and it stands at around a thousand meters above sea level. Therefore, the actual elevation of the Ukraine Airlines Boeing was around 1,300 meters. If the first missile hit the airplane at a distance somewhere between 2,700 and 3,300 meters from the presumed point of take-off, and therefore beyond the safety limit, the second missile, which arrived 21 seconds after, would be below this limit as evidenced by the reconstruction of the route held by the Boeing.
That interval of time that passed between the first and second launch is long for the tactics employed in the use of the Tor system: after the first missile usually, the next one is launched a few seconds later to carry out a lethal 1-2 hit on the target. Twenty-one seconds is too long.
A manpad? It would change everything
At this point, we can reflect on a second possibility. Let’s start by saying that this is a hypothesis based on the analysis of sources available to everyone. Black boxes and actual data are under the scrutiny of the investigators.
Iran has a series of portable surface-air devices, called man-portable air defense systems or manpads, which can be fired by a single man, and these have flight profiles and safety devices that better conform to what we see in the video. In particular, Iran has an uncertain number of Strela M-2, Strela 3, Igla-S, Misagh-1 and 2 manpads and from what it seems also some Singer manpads left from supplies secretly obtained from the United States (Iran-Contra affair) during the Iran-Iraq war of the ‘80s.
The famous 21 seconds between the missiles are more appropriate for the time it takes to carry out a second launch of a manpad from the same device or a second one once it was clear visually that the airplane was still in flying condition. Furthermore, this theory would be better suited to explaining how it was possible that the operators of the Tor-M1 system, which falls under the Iranian anti-aircraft “defense belt” could have mixed up a civilian aircraft, equipped with a regular transponder, with a military target.
An unsettling scenario
Naturally, it’s difficult, with the methods available, to discover the truth. And perhaps it is impossible. But what’s certain is that something happened that night in Tehran. What started with the assassination of Soleimani became a mess of accusations, counter-accusations, threats and appointments that have us predicting that something is changing within the higher ranks of the Islamic Republic and the Revolutionary Guards.
The killing of Soleimani, a man who was considered a loyal follower of Ali Khamenei, has marked a clear turn in Tehran’s strategy in the Middle East. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s vice commander and the new leader of the Quds, is a systematic man who many believe is much less autonomous compared to his predecessor and much closer to the hard wing. The Supreme Leader has chosen Ghaani, following the path of continuity, but in actuality, his nomination goes beyond simple bureaucratic substitution. In the meantime, the assumption of responsibility by General Hajizadeh discredits the head of the most important force in the Pasdaran’s strategy after the Quds, the aerospace force, which leads the missile program.
The political earthquake sparked by the killing of Soleimani, pushed forward by the desire for revenge and ended (for now) with the sermon of Ali Khamenei in his Friday prayer (the first time in eight years) shows that something is changing in the system of the Islamic Republic. Also, the images of Rouhani leaving the prayer behind Khamenei before the end, with the shocked expression of the Parliament president, Ali Larijani, could be a sign of a rift. The Supreme Leader’s sermon is never just a simple sermon: the ayatollah’s words were a fire against the world.
This rift is founded on doubts surrounding the airplane incident, which seems increasingly packed with mysteries.
If it wasn’t the Tor system but rather a manpad, proving thus a contradiction of the universally accepted theory, then there is someone who picked up that weapon and fired. Who and for whom is impossible to know, but it would certainly be the backdrop to that sort of mini-revolution that the Republic’s establishment is witnessing. But as for why that flight was chosen, there are many hypotheses and no certainty.
Of course there is the fact that that airplane should never have left on a night of missile raids, as Commander Hajizadeh had ordered. But that order was ignored by Tehran airport. It’s true that the Boeing plane, having received the ok from the control tower, took off like normal without receiving any further instructions.
Another mystery is the fact that the Revolutionary Guards, which has a base near the Khomeini airport, could have committed such a careless error as to mistake an airline plane leaving from an airport a few kilometers away with an enemy aircraft. The radar of a system like that of the Iranian anti-aircraft would not have made such an error, and a soldier is not alone in firing missiles. There is a battalion behind him. The third mystery, which we can only slightly touch on, is understanding if behind the destruction of the airplane was not just an internal fight but also the desire to hit that plane specifically.
These will probably just remain mysteries. But if it wasn’t just a Tor error, the idea is that someone wanted to make the system falter – from within or from the outside, we don’t know.
For now, with the investigations still underway and taking for granted the “official” version, one result seems almost clear: that key figures in Iranian politics have been weakened, first and foremost Rouhani and Zarif, those who are discussing the new nuclear deal behind closed doors.
Translation by Alexa Ahern