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Tehran must provide transparency on crash

von Hein Matthias Kommentarbild App
Matthias von Hein
January 10, 2020

Was the Ukrainian passenger jet shot down? If that proves true, the victims would be even more bitter proof that innocent civilians pay the price when violence escalates, writes DW's Matthias von Hein.

Ukraine Kiew | Trauer nach Flugzeugabsturz im Iran
A memorial poster showing the type of plane that crashed outside Tehran is seen outside the Iranian Embassy in KyivImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Sputnik

The year 2020 is only 10 days old, but over the course of its approximately 300 hours, the Persian Gulf region has already teetered on the brink of war and — at least for the present — teetered back again. In addition, the world has to come to grips with the tragic crash of flight Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752, which killed all 176 people on board.

The crash and primarily its cause continue to raise many questions, but there is mounting evidence that the airliner was shot down by mistake by Iranian air defense. But  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy isn't the only one who wants to see the evidence before committing himself to this version of events. In an already heated situation like the current one in the Persian Gulf, intelligence information should always be enjoyed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Bellingcat on Iran jet crash

Why was Tehran's airport open in the first place?

The accidental downing scenario, however, is certainly a plausible one. Shortly after Iran's retaliatory attack on US targets in Iraq, the Iranian air defense must have been prepared for a US counterstrike and in a state of high anxiety. It is absolutely within the realm of possibility that somebody committed a fatal error in a stressful situation. Which raises the question: Why did Iranian authorities keep Tehran's airport open, allowing departures and arrivals of civilian aircraft as if nothing had happened?

So far, Tehran has rejected the idea that the plane could have been shot down. But the denial would be more convincing if all investigators were given access to the crash site. If Iran wants to gain credibility, it will have to provide complete transparency. The country owes that much to the victims' relatives and the international community. Any attempt at politicizing the accident would be unacceptable. 

DW Kommentarbild Matthias von Hein
DW's Matthias von Hein

It is a good sign that Tehran has, in the meantime, invited experts from US plane manufacturer Boeing to take part in the crash probe. Due to US sanctions on Iran, however, those experts need special permission from the Treasury Department, which they appear likely to receive. And there is another encouraging signal: By his standards, US President Donald Trump has made a somewhat conciliatory statement regarding the accident."It is a tragic thing. Somebody could have made a mistake. The other side could have made a mistake," Trump said in the White House and further attacks on Iranians have not occurred.

Innocent civilians pay the price

If the passenger plane was indeed shot down by mistake by Iran's air defense, the 176 victims would send a bitter message to both Tehran and Washington: Those who opt to pursue the route of escalation lose control over where that route finishes. In addition, those who pay the price are primarily — as in so many other cases before — innocent civilians.

That's what makes it crucial that Europe picks up the pace of its crisis diplomacy — right now. After Tehran's moderate retaliation for the killing of General Qassem Soleimani in a US drone attack and the ensuing equally moderate reaction from Washington, a window of opportunity appears to have opened up. But it could close again soon.

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