A few hours after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) targeted two American bases in Iraq on January 8, with over a dozen missiles in retaliation for the assassination of its Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, an IRGC air defense unit near Tehran accidentally shot down a Ukraine-bound Boeing 737 airliner, killing all 176 passengers and crew onboard. Then in a systematic coverup, the government blamed “technical flaws” for the crash and hid the real cause of the tragic incident for three days before owning up to it under mounting domestic and international pressure.
The NYT might have fallen in a state-plotted “psyop” and propaganda trap.
Less than three weeks later, on January 26, The New York Times (NYT) published an exclusive — titled “Anatomy of a Lie: How Iran Covered up the Downing of an Airliner” — where it detailed, for the first time, how the coverup had taken place and who was responsible for it. In addition to providing a set of insightful nuggets about the workings of Iranian authorities in Tehran during those days, it made two extremely significant yet highly implausible claims, raising suspicions that the NYT might have fallen in a state-plotted “psyop” and propaganda trap.
The scoop suggested that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was informed of the “human error” only “around sunset” or in the evening of the same day, that is, at least 12 hours after the plane had been downed. Perhaps more remarkably, it also suggested that President Hassan Rouhani learned about the truth on January 10, that is, around two and a half days after the incident. In sum, the story amounted to an exoneration of the Supreme Leader, and particularly the Rouhani administration, while pinning the blame on the Revolutionary Guards and “the nation’s top military commanders.”
“Mr. Rouhani threatened to resign,” if they did not agree to come clean publicly the NYT further claimed, indicating that without the “moderate” administration in power the hardliners would have probably prevailed, and the Islamic Republic would have gotten away with public deception on a massive scale.
The narrative was so widely and unquestioningly received as the true version of events that even some vociferously critical and reform-minded politicians and activists in Tehran flagged it up as an indication of indeed having a “moderate” rather than a hardline president in office. They thus encouraged a massive public turnout in the parliamentary vote in February despite an almost unprecedented loss of popular trust and interest only weeks prior. Such loss of trust in the electoral process had followed the bloody state suppression of gasoline protests in November, the accidental shootdown of the Ukrainian airliner, and lastly the systematic disqualification of establishment critics by the Guardian Council, Iran’s constitutional watchdog for the elections.
Errors of Intelligence Analysis
While the NYT article contains some very insightful details — particularly about the political psychology of decision-making within the Islamic Republic’s top military leadership — it represents two fateful errors of intelligence analysis in terms of plausibility and accuracy, as this author highlighted back then.
First, it is very implausible and unlikely for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to be kept in the dark about such an issue of national security significance as the passenger plane shootdown for even half a day. This is simply not how things work in the Islamic Republic’s security and military apparatus. As the “Commander-in-Chief of All Forces”, he is the first in the political hierarchy to be informed of state matters, and as a matter of fact, his trusted advisors, Ali Asghar Hejazi and Vahid Haqqanian, respectively chief of political affairs and chief of security detail in the Supreme Leader’s office, make sure of that.
Contrary to the NYT claim, Khamenei most probably learned about the real cause of the crash — the “human error” — as soon as, or shortly after, General Amirali Hajizadeh did.
Contrary to the NYT claim, therefore, Khamenei most probably learned about the real cause of the crash — the “human error” — as soon as, or shortly after, General Amirali Hajizadeh did. General Hajizadeh is the head of the IRGC’s aerospace division who was in western Iran overseeing the retaliatory missile strikes against American bases in Iraq at the time.
Second, it is equally implausible and unlikely for President Rouhani to learn about the downing two and a half days later, when the top military commanders informed him, as the NYT suggests. As the official head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Rouhani is considered the Islamic Republic’s most security-aware president since the 1979 revolution. This is especially true given his long track record in security and military roles, including serving as commander of Iran’s air defense force from 1986 to 1991, and his vast connections within the intelligence apparatus as a result.
It is much more likely that President Rouhani learned about the “human error” on the exact same day it happened, that is Wednesday, January 8. He simply did not want to take a stand alone, that is without the consent of the Revolutionary Guards commanders and/or Khamenei, probably because the core leadership or establishment had not yet reached a consensus on how to present and manage the crisis.
The NYT narrative about the shootdown coverup was severely undermined later by two pieces of irrefutable evidence.
These intelligence implausibilities and inconsistencies aside, the NYT narrative about the shootdown coverup was severely undermined later by two pieces of irrefutable evidence.
In early February, a leaked audio recording of an exchange between the pilot of a nearby airliner — which had the doomed Ukrainian Boeing 737 within its sight — and an air traffic controller at the Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran indicated that not only top authorities knew about the incident from the very first hours but even low-ranking airport officers and civilian pilots were aware of it as well. In other words, the reality became known to many from the beginning.
The nearby pilot points to “flares en route, as if from a missile.”
According to the audiotape, the nearby pilot points to “flares en route, as if from a missile” in his conversations with the control tower operator as he prepares to land.
“Should anything like this be happening there?” the pilot asks.
“We were not informed of this,” the controller replies, further inquiring, “What does this light look like?”
“That surely is the light from a missile,” the pilot responds.
One possibility in this case is that the audio recording was leaked by the Revolutionary Guards, or with its blessing, in order to torpedo the NYT’s pro-Rouhani and anti-IRGC narrative about the coverup, even though the Rouhani administration officials blamed the Ukrainian government of President Volodymyr Zelenski for breach of confidentiality and pledged not to share such information with it any longer.
Rouhani commended the IRGC’s public admission of guilt, implying that his administration knew what had really happened much earlier than what the NYT story had the reader believe.
Moreover, in a press conference on February 16, Rouhani commended the IRGC’s public admission of guilt, implying that his administration knew what had really happened much earlier than what the NYT story had the reader believe.
“We had doubts as of Thursday [January 9, one day after the shootdown],” he said. “I believe the announcement process could have been sped up [by the IRGC], but there was no intentionality [in hiding the truth].”
The Iranian president described the fatal incident and the ensuing coverup as a “one-off mistake”, stressing that “we should not let these incidents damage our cohesion.”