From Lockerbie to the downing of Flight PS752
On Jan. 8, 2020, Iran’s air defense system was on high alert after the military launched a barrage of missiles targeting Iraqi bases housing US troops. Iran feared US retaliation. A year later, there has been no proof of any foreign intrusion into its airspace at the time when two TOR rockets pierced the fuselage of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. After initial denials, Iran admitted that the aircraft was shot down “mistakenly.”
If the downing was a mistake, then it exposes the unprofessionalism and recklessness of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). However, there are other interpretations of the incident, linking it to a deliberate and calculated Iranian act intended to pin the blame on rival powers. But thanks to the almost immediate viral photographs and videos on social media, the IRGC had no room to blame hostile foreign forces.
Some 13 months later, a leaked audio of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talking about the downing of Flight PS752 has stirred controversy inside Iran and abroad. In it, he can be heard saying that the incident was accidental, but later he says it is possible that two or three “infiltrators” deliberately downed the plane. In addition, he says a full investigation was not carried out and the truth of what happened will never be revealed by Iran’s Armed Forces and top leadership. He does not implicate his own government for hiding the facts, but seems to be scapegoating others by blaming “infiltrators” without providing details. Either way, Iran violated certain provisions of the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation and of the 1971 Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation.
Iran had accused the US of doing the same in July 1988, when Iran Air Flight IR655 was shot down over the Arabian Gulf, killing all 290 people on board. Though the US agreed to pay Iran $131.8 million in compensation in February 1996, some mysteries still exist.
Five months after the tragic downing of the Iran Air flight, Pan Am flight PA103 exploded at 31,000 feet, with its debris scattering across an area of more than 2,000 sq km along the English-Scottish border. The crash over Lockerbie claimed 270 lives. Finding evidence for what caused the deadly blast that ripped the plane apart was comparable to searching for a needle in a haystack, but aviation experts termed it a terrorist act. The media then recalled Iran’s threat to retaliate for the downing of Flight IR655.
Years later, however, Libyan citizen Abdelbaset Ali Mohammed Al-Megrahi was convicted for causing PA103’s deadly end. He pleaded his innocence until his death in 2012. Owing to foreign pressure and political expediency, Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi admitted his country’s role in the bombing. Among others, the late Nelson Mandela, himself a lawyer, had cast doubt on the prosecution’s case and the resulting verdict. Three decades later, the Scottish courts admitted Al-Megrahi’s family’s plea for a third appeal, only to reject it on Jan. 15.
Iran admitted shooting down Flight PS752, but refused an international probe while whitewashing the evidence.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
If, as some claim, Libya did not down the Pan Am flight, then who did? The most obvious suspect since December 1988 has been Ahmed Jibril, head of a Palestinian-Syrian terrorist group — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command — whose ties to Iran were no secret. Jibril, said to be living in Damascus, was allegedly paid $13 million for avenging the downing of Flight IR655. At the time, the George H.W. Bush administration preferred not to blame Syria or Iran as it was preparing to attack Iraq in 1991 and needed their support. It was also seeking to free some hostages. Hence, Libya was blamed via Al-Megrahi.
Fast forward to 2020 and Iran admitted shooting down Flight PS752, but refused an international probe while whitewashing the evidence. It belatedly sent the black box to France, but the findings are still awaited. The families of the victims have been intimidated, while disputes remain in relation to the compensation package, as well as to the naming of the actual perpetrators of the crime.
Tehran’s excuse that its air defense personnel acted spontaneously holds little weight. The orders to carry out such an act must have come from the top. Canada and Ukraine, along with the three other countries whose citizens were killed, have not given up.
Iran has yet to face the real consequences of its targeting of US troops on the same day, while many fear nothing will happen. Libya had to pay the economic, political and strategic price for something allegedly done by Iran. Even prior to Zarif’s leaked audio, Tehran had admitted to downing the Ukrainian flight. However, this reckless act is not among the talking points of the US, the EU or the other major powers in their dealings with Iran. There cannot be a greater mockery of fair play than Iran getting away with the mass murder of innocent travelers.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami