Iranians were so distraught over the assassination of General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, by an American drone strike in Baghdad. They had also vowed ‘hard revenge’ at every rally, at every square, every venue, indeed, everywhere. Day after day, millions of Iranians flooded the streets, in city after city, to express their grief, to mourn their famous commander, to shake their fists at and to recite ‘death to America.’ The issue of revenge was so fundamental that when the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, paid a condolence visit to the deceased’s family, the soldier’s daughter had only one question for the Imam: “who is going to exact the revenge for my father?”
An awkward kind of question, but the Supreme Leader did not hesitate to say, “the task falls on all of us.” That’s how Iran set up the disaster that befell the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 and its 176 passengers and crew who perished in the neighbourhood of the Khomeini International Airport in Tehran on January 8. Flight 752 was a scheduled flight from Tehran to Kiev on a night of the ‘hard revenge.’ As dozens of ballistic missiles rained down on two airbases that hosted American troops in Iraq, the story was that the missile battery man saw Flight 752 and mistook the Boeing 737-800 for an approaching cruise missile, he sought permission from his boss, but time was too short. He had only 10 seconds. The permission, of course, didn’t come. Two missiles were unleashed. The first struck directly the underneath of the cockpit, which immediately killed the three pilots. The second missile delivered the coup de grace. The plane had flown for exactly two minutes before it turned into blazing wreckage.
After three days of feigning innocence and ignorance of what happened to Flight 752, the Revolutionary Guard’s Aerospace Commander, Brig-Gen. Amir Ali Hadjizadeh, accepted full responsibility on behalf of the regiment. A request had been made for a ‘no fly’ zone in the area before the incident but for reasons that are unclear this was rejected. He did not give names and no reason was given why any right-thinking person would reject such a precautionary measure given the prevailing atmosphere. The Supreme Leader has apologised and has spoken of “human error” and exhorted his force to ensure that such incident never happens in the future.
Tears have flowed freely. Killed were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans, and three Britons. Among the dead were a newly wed couple, a family of four, a mother and her daughters. A husband survived because he had issues with his tickets. His wife, Roja Azadian, went ahead and perished in the crash. The Ukraine International Airlines named the three highly experienced pilots aboard: Captain Volodymyr Gaponenko had flown 11,600 hours on Boeing 737 aircraft, including 5,500 hours as captain; Instructor Pilot Oleksiy Naumkin had clocked 12,000 hours on Boeing 737, including 6,600 as captain; First Officer Serhii Khomenko had flown 7,600 hours on the 737. The airline’s Vice President of Operations, Ihor Sosnovsky, lamented his loss. “Tehran Airport is anything but a simple one. Therefore, for several years UIA has been using the airport to conduct training on Boeing 737 aircraft aimed at evaluating pilots’ proficiency and ability to act in emergency cases. Given the crew’s experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance,” he said.
The history of airline shoot-downs records at least 44 cases since civil aviation became an important means of transportation in the 1930s. They occur in an atmosphere of belligerence, when communication is limited or unfriendly. The high tension between the United States and Iran during the period was a perfect atmosphere for such a disaster. The Iranians have accepted and must bear full responsibility for their action. As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said, accepting responsibility for the shoot-down is just the first step. It must be followed by the next logical steps, including full and adequate compensation for the families of the victims. The world must also learn from this incident. The Iranian obsession with revenge appears to have clouded the reason and common sense of an otherwise thoughtful people. If you are going to lay down a barrage of ballistic missiles, why not take the most elementary precaution to close down the air space to civil aviation? Secondly, it should also serve as a lesson to nations on the need to exercise extreme caution when taking decisions.
If the United States had not killed General Suleimani, the Iranians would not have shot down Flight 752. But even in the face of provocation, nations must exercise great caution. No one anticipated all the ripple effects from the 56 Iranians trampled to death during the General’s funeral, to the deaths of 176 innocent travellers. Conflicts are easy to start but how they develop and where they extend has been proven to be beyond human competence. The right answer is to de-escalate it and go to the conference table under all circumstances.