VOA Exclusive: Ukraine Accuses Iran of Premediated Terrorist Act in 2020 Plane Shootdown
Ukraine is sharpening its accusation that Iran played a sinister role in the 2020 shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran as the world marks the second anniversary of the tragedy.
“What happened on January 8th, 2020, was a terrorist act committed against a civilian aircraft,” Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council secretary, said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with VOA Persian.
Danilov also expressed frustration with what he said was Iran’s refusal to cooperate in investigating and providing compensation for the downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752.
Iran has acknowledged firing missiles that struck the plane and killed all 176 people on board, but it called the incident an accident and blamed it on a misaligned air defense system and human error by the missile operators. The plane had taken off from Tehran minutes earlier, carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian Canadians who were flying to Kyiv en route to Canada.
The Iranian forces who shot down the Ukrainian plane had been on alert for a U.S. response to a missile strike that Iran launched on American troops in Iraq several hours earlier. Iran had attacked the U.S. troops, wounding dozens, in retaliation for a U.S. airstrike that killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad five days previously.
Danilov noted that before and after Iran’s pre-dawn missile strikes on Flight PS752, Iranian authorities had allowed other civilian jets to take off from Tehran airport. “We have the impression that they [the Iranians] had been waiting specifically for our plane. We can assume this,” he said.
Danilov said those who allegedly were waiting to strike the UIA jet were senior Iranian officials. “It must have been an order from senior management. No [air defense] operators can make such a decision on their own.”
The Ukrainian security official’s accusations regarding Iran’s role in the incident were tougher and more detailed than his previous ones.
In an April 2021 interview with Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, Danilov said he believed the Iranian downing of Flight PS752 was “intentional” and a “conscious attack.”
Ukrainian news site Ukrinform later quoted Danilov as saying in May 2021 that Kyiv was “more and more inclined” to call the Iranian missile strikes a “terrorist act.” Danilov was responding to a Canadian judge’s ruling that month that the “missile attacks were intentional” and “the shooting down of the civilian aircraft constituted terrorist activity under applicable federal law.”
The Ontario court’s ruling came as part of a civil lawsuit brought by relatives of six Flight PS752 victims against Iranian officials, whom they blamed for the tragedy. In a further decision announced Monday, the court awarded the plaintiffs $84 million in damages “for loss of life caused by terrorism.”
Iran’s U.N. mission in New York did not respond to a VOA request for comment on Danilov’s latest statements that the downing of Flight PS752 was a premeditated, terrorist act. VOA made the request in a voicemail on the Iranian U.N. mission’s phone line and in messages sent to the mission by email and on Twitter.
In a separate email exchange with VOA on Friday, Ukraine’s former deputy prosecutor general, Gyunduz Mamedov, used even sharper language to describe Iran’s role in the shootdown.
Mamedov, who was involved in Ukraine’s ongoing criminal investigation of the incident while serving as deputy prosecutor general from 2019 to 2021, said the investigation remains in a pretrial stage in which the classification of the alleged crime is being determined.
“The pre-trial investigation is considering various categories of crime, including an act of terrorism,” Mamedov wrote. “It also is likely that the downing of an aircraft will be classified as a war crime.”
Ukraine has not disclosed evidence that Iran’s shooting down of Flight PS752 was part of a premeditated, intentional act.
Canada, which lost 55 citizens and 30 permanent residents in the shootdown, has not publicly shared Ukraine’s assessments of a sinister Iranian role in the incident.
But Canada joined Ukraine and two other nations whose citizens were among the victims, Britain and Sweden, in issuing a statement Thursday vowing to “hold Iran accountable for the actions and omissions of its civil and military officials that led to the illegal downing of Flight PS752 by ensuring that Iran makes full reparations for its breaches of international law.”
The four nations, which joined together as an International Coordination and Response Group for the victims of Flight PS752, also said that after a first round of talks in July 2020, Iran rejected their January 5 deadline to resume negotiations on their collective demand for reparations. They said they would “now focus on subsequent actions … to resolve this matter in accordance with international law.”
Danilov told VOA that not only has Iran paid no compensation to the Ukrainian victims’ families, but its cooperation with Ukraine’s criminal investigation was nonexistent.
In a statement issued Friday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Tehran has sent letters to embassies of relevant governments declaring a readiness to pay the families of 30 foreign victims.
The Iranian statement said Tehran was ready for “bilateral” talks with the countries whose citizens were killed in the shootdown. But it accused some of those nations, without naming them, of committing “illegal actions” and “trying to exploit this painful incident and the plight of the survivors for their own political purposes.”
Britain, Canada, Sweden and Ukraine have insisted on multilateral negotiations.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry also noted that the Iranian judiciary has held several court sessions since opening a trial in November of 10 military personnel charged in connection with the shootdown.
In his VOA interview, Danilov questioned the credibility of that trial. “We don’t know whether these people are really responsible, because the processes that took place in Iran were held behind closed doors and foreign representatives were not allowed inside to confirm that this was a transparent, democratic procedure,” he said.
In explaining his belief that the downing of the Ukrainian plane was intentional, Danilov told the Globe and Mail in his April 2021 interview that Iran might have used it as a pre-dawn distraction to calm an escalating confrontation with the more powerful U.S. military.
He also cited Iran’s use of a Russian-made missile system to strike the jetliner. Ukrainian military experts have said such a system is unlikely to mistakenly shoot down a passenger plane.
This story was a collaboration between VOA’s Persian and Ukrainian services and English News Center. Kateryna Lisunova of VOA Ukrainian and Arash Sigarchi of VOA Persian contributed.