Iranian forces shot down the Ukrainian airliner that crashed outside Tehran on Wednesday, according to U.S. government sources who contradicted original reports by Iranian officials of a suspected engine explosion. The U.S. assessment, first reported Thursday by Newsweek, comes amid a political firestorm sparked by the killing of Iran’s top general by a U.S. drone strike and a subsequent missile attack by Iran on two airbases in Iraq occupied by U.S. military personnel. The tensions ostensibly prompted Iran to say it would not turn over the airplane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders to U.S. investigators, leading to suspicions in the West that the Iranian regime’s decision had more to do with a desire to potentially maintain plausible deniability. In fact, the Iranians have denied the most recent claims by U.S. officials.
The crash, which happened minutes after the Boeing 737-800 took off from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, claimed the lives of all 176 people on board. No distress call came from the crew, suggesting no signs of a technical problem until the airplane exploded while flying at an altitude of roughly 8,000 feet. However, reports out of Iran have indicated that the pilots had tried to return to Tehran’s airport before the catastrophe occurred.
Although the U.S. officials expressed a high degree of confidence that the crash resulted from some sort of projectile strike, they would not rule a case of an accidental act on the part of the Iranians. Images published on Wednesday on the website of aviation information service OpsGroup showed projectile damage in one of the 737’s wings, although the organization at the time cautioned that the damage could have resulted from engine fragments.
While Iran has allowed Ukrainian aviation safety experts access to the crash site, it remained unclear whether it would cooperate with U.S. officials. International Civil Aviation Organization conventions allow for representatives from the home country of both the designers and manufacturers of the airplane to participate in crash investigations. Iranian officials have said they would adhere to the ICAO guidelines, but until Thursday they had still not invited any U.S. participation.