The shooting down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner immediately after takeoff from the Teheran international airport is still shrouded in mystery. 176 passengers and crew died in the ensuing crash after one or two missiles from a sophisticated Russian Tor-M1 antiaircraft battery exploded near the plane. The Iranian regime initially denied any connection to the incident, but in the face of overwhelming evidence was forced to admit that their air defense system had downed the plane.
The Iranians said that it was a human error in which a “junior officer” mistook the plane for an American cruise missile. According to Brigadier-General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, “The operator identified the plane as a cruise missile but was unable to contact the central air defense command to confirm it. So he had to choose between shooting it down or not, and he choose [sic] to do it, Hajizadeh said. The operator had 10 seconds to make a decision.”
“I take full responsibility and I will obey whatever decision is taken,” Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said in remarks broadcast on state television. “When I found out what had happened, I wanted to die. I said, I would rather die rather than be a witness to such an incident.”
Nevertheless, there are considerations that make it hard to understand how such a “mistake” could have been made. A cruise missile flies much faster than a commercial aircraft, and would have been at a lower altitude. Several other commercial flights had taken off from the airport that day, and surely operators would have been familiar with the profile. The plane had a functioning transponder which “squawks” its identification, which would be available to military radars as well as the airport tower (which had just communicated with the pilots). The Tor-M1 battery near the airport would be integrated with other radar equipment in the local air defense system, and the blip would have been marked for the operator as a commercial airliner. According to a source familiar with the system, it would have required the operator to make a “command override choice” to override the identification in order to select it as a target.
Perhaps an poorly-trained operator panicked? Hard to believe. Or for some reason someone wanted to destroy a commercial flight? We don’t know, and we may never find out.
Protests in Iran have broken out from anger about the government’s lying and responsibility for the crash in which 82 of the 176 people killed were Iranians. This is after protests against high gas prices led to the deaths of 1,500 Iranians at the hands of security forces. Iranians, especially educated ones and students, are showing their frustration with a regime that has expended resources on expansionist wars while oppressing the population at home.
The regime’s expansionism threatens the peace of the region as well as the world. It is engaged in terrorist mischief-making around the world, and the regime has forced one of the greatest nations in the world to become a captive of a medieval Islamist ideology that should not exist in the 21st century. It is the epicenter of world antisemitism. And it is pursuing nuclear weapons to make it even more dangerous. Iran’s aggression is precisely the kind of behavior that the UN was created to combat. And yet, more often than not, the UN’s mechanisms work to abet rather than to hamper it.
The most desirable outcome would be for the Iranian people to overthrow the regime of the ayatollahs and establish an enlightened, democratic government in its place. Failing that, almost any government that would be concerned with the welfare of its people rather than exporting its revolutionary Islamism, dominating the region, destroying Israel, and threatening the rest of the world, would be an improvement.
Rather than seeking to expand trade with Iran, as the European countries have done, the civilized nations of the world should cooperate to isolate and pressure the Iranian regime economically. Dissident forces in the country should receive support and encouragement to overthrow it. It may also be necessary to use limited force in order to prevent the regime from producing nuclear weapons. It seems clear that nothing short of that will stop them, since they see nuclear weapons as an impenetrable umbrella for their overall design, and they may be right. Therefore, they are willing to make almost any sacrifice – that is, to force their population to sacrifice – in order to achieve this goal. Time is short.
Although the general principle that nations should not interfere with the internal affairs of other nations is a worthy one, Iran under the revolutionary regime pursues policies that make it an existential danger to other nations. Ignoring its behavior and allowing it to continue, especially along with the development of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them all over the world, is foolhardy.
As far as I can tell, the main obstacle to a concerted international effort is the financial benefit that some countries and influential individuals derive from their relationship to the regime. But nations that see themselves as the responsible adults of the world must put aside the short term gains that come from cooperation with the regime and instead work together with the Iranian people to remove it. Regime change could be accomplished without invading Iran, and without destroying the country’s infrastructure and killing millions, because a significant proportion of the population would be on board.
The US is the most powerful and important country in the world, and has the power and influence needed to lead a campaign against the Ayatollahs. President Trump appears to understand the need to take action, but unfortunately his political opponents are automatically against anything that he’s for, regardless of the intrinsic merit of his policy. In the case of Iran, the antagonism is particularly strong because the Obama administration chose to appease rather than confront the regime. The same “echo chamber” that gave us the JCPOA (the nuclear “deal”) is back and is working overtime.
I am certain that my argument will fall on deaf ears in the case of those who see Trump as the Devil. This is particularly unfortunate, because the situation will change drastically for the worse once Iran goes nuclear.