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Misaligned radar responsible for downing of Ukrainian passenger jet, Iran says

Iranian investigators have blamed the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet over the capital Tehran earlier this year on the misalignment of an air defense unit’s radar system, a report said Saturday.

All 176 passengers were killed in the Jan. 8 incident, which sparked widespread public anger after Iranian authorities took days to admit that its forces had fired an antiaircraft missile at the Boeing 737-800 shortly after takeoff from Imam Khomeini International Airport.

Most of the dead were Iranian. Many were students, and for days after the shoot-down, their campuses became a stage for the grief and rage of fellow young Iranians.

The report from Iran’s civil aviation authority built on earlier findings that blamed the human error of a missile operator who had 10 seconds to decide whether the plane was a threat.

The downing occurred on a night where regional tensions were boiling: after an American drone strike killed Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran had launched ballistic missiles targeting U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

In Iran, armed forces were bracing for a counterstrike.

The new report claims that the radar that the missile operator was monitoring had been misaligned, causing it to misinterpret the location of the passenger jet and indicate instead that there might be a second plane in the air.

“A failure occurred due to a human error in following the procedure” for aligning the radar, causing a “107-degree error” in the system, the report said. It then detailed, minute-by-minute, the chain of events that led to the plane’s targeting.

Saturday’s report did not apportion direct blame or liability, arguing that this would have hampered the investigators’ ability to secure the cooperation of those involved. It said that would be decided through the country’s judiciary.

Source: Washington Post

The report detailed a series of moments where the shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 could have been avoided.

The report said the surface-to-air missile battery that targeted the Boeing 737-800 had been relocated and was not properly reoriented.

Those manning the missile battery could not communicate with their command center, they misidentified the civilian flight as a threat and opened fire twice without getting approval from ranking officials, the report said.

“If each had not arisen, the aircraft would not have been targeted,” the report said.

Western intelligence officials and analysts believe Iran shot down the aircraft with a Russian-made Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15. In 2007, Iran took the delivery of 29 Tor M1 units from Russia under a contract worth an estimated $700 million. The system is mounted on a tracked vehicle and carries a radar and a pack of eight missiles.

The report did not say why the Guard moved the air defense system, though that area near the airport is believed to be home to both regular military and bases of the paramilitary Guard.

The report notes that the Ukrainian flight had done nothing out of the ordinary up until the missile launch, with its transponder and other data being broadcast.

“At the time of firing the first missile, the aircraft was flying at a normal altitude and trajectory,” the report said.

The plane had just taken off from Imam Khomeini International Airport when the first missile exploded, possibly damaging its radio equipment, the report said. The second missile likely directly struck the aircraft, as videos that night show the plane exploding into a ball of fire before crashing into a playground and farmland on the outskirts of Tehran.

The report put the blame entirely on the crew of the missile battery. Already, six people believed to be involved in the incident have been arrested, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili reportedly said in June. He said at the time three had been released on bail while the other three remained held.

In recent months, Iran has repeatedly delayed releasing the aircraft’s so-called black box, which includes data and communications from the cockpit leading up to the shootdown. The US, under international regulations, has a right to be part of the investigation as the plane involved was a Boeing.

Iran is to send the black box to France on July 20, where Ukrainian and French experts are expected to examine it, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency recently reported. Iranian officials did not have the equipment on hand to read data from the box.

The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians — including many Iranians with dual citizenship — and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The route was popular with those traveling onward to Canada.

Source: Amir Vahdat and Jon Gambrell – TOI