Iran announced Saturday that its military "unintentionally" shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible.
The plane was shot down early Wednesday, hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad. No one was wounded in the attack on the bases.
A military statement carried by state media said the plane was mistaken for a "hostile target" after it turned toward a "sensitive military center" of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its "highest level of readiness," it said, amid the heightened tensions with the United States.
"In such a condition, because of human error and in a unintentional way, the flight was hit," the statement said. It apologized for the disaster and said it would upgrade its systems to prevent such "mistakes" in the future.
It also said those responsible for the strike on the plane would be prosecuted.
Iran's acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders in the wake of Soleimani's killing. The general was seen as a national icon, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians had turned out for funeral processions across the country.
But the vast majority of the plane victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians, and the crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices.
"A sad day," Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. "Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster. Our profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations."
The jetliner, a Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, went down on the outskirts of Tehran shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Iran had denied for several days that a missile caused the crash. But then the U.S. and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos of the incident.
The plane, en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The Canadian government had earlier lower the nation's death toll from 63.
"This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission," said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash.
"I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face."
The U.S. promised "appropriate action" Friday in response to its assessment that an Iranian missile was responsible for downing a Ukrainian jetliner that crashed outside Tehran, as the Iranian government denied playing a role in the killing of all 176 people on board.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the highest-level U.S. official to directly pin the blame on Iran, after Canadian, Australian and British leaders announced similar intelligence conclusions Thursday. "We do believe it is likely that that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile," he said.
Pompeo said an investigation would continue into the incident and that once it was complete he was "confident that we and the world will take appropriate action as a response." Leaders said the plane appeared to have been unintentionally hit by a surface-to-air missile.
Earlier Friday, Iran denied Western allegations that one of its own missiles downed the jetliner that crashed early Wednesday outside Tehran, hours after Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq to avenge the killing of its top general in an American airstrike last week.
"What is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane," Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran's national aviation department, told a press conference.
"If they are really sure, they should come and show their findings to the world" in accordance with international standards, he added.
Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the Iranian investigation team, said recovering data from the black box flight recorders could take more than a month and that the entire investigation could stretch into next year. He also said Iran may request help from international experts if it is not able to extract the flight recordings.
The ballistic missile attack on the bases in Iraq caused no casualties, raising hopes that the standoff over the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani would end relatively peacefully, though Iran has sent mixed signals over whether its retaliation is complete.
If the U.S. or Canada were to present incontrovertible evidence that the plane was shot down by Iran, even if unintentionally, it could have a dramatic impact on public opinion in Iran.
The Iranian public had rallied around the leadership after the killing of Soleimani last Friday, with hundreds of thousands joining the general's funeral processions in several cities, in an unprecedented display of grief and unity.
But sentiments in Iran are still raw over the government's crackdown on large-scale protests late last year sparked by an economic crisis exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. Several hundred protesters were reported to have been killed in the clampdown.
Those fissures could quickly break open again if Iranian authorities are seen to be responsible for the deaths of 176 people, mainly Iranians or dual Iranian-Canadian citizens. Iran still points to the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger jet by U.S. forces in 1988 — which killed all 290 people aboard — as proof of American hostility.
U.S., Canadian and British officials said Thursday it is "highly likely" that Iran shot down the Boeing 737, which crashed near Tehran early Wednesday. U.S. officials said the jetliner might have been mistakenly identified as a threat.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose country lost 57 citizens in the downing, said "we have intelligence from multiple sources including our allies and our own intelligence."
"The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile," he said.
The U.S. officials did not say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile, believed to be fired by Russian Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15. But they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication interceptions and other similar intelligence.
Western countries may hesitate to share information on such a strike because it comes from highly classified sources.
Videos verified by The Associated Press appear to show the final seconds of the the ill-fated airliner, which had just taken off from Iran early Wednesday.
In one video, a fast-moving light can be seen through the trees as someone films from the ground. The light appears to be the burning plane, which plummets to the earth as a huge fireball illuminates the landscape.
Someone off-camera says in Farsi: "The plane has caught fire. ... In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. God, please help us. Call the fire department!"
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said "the missile theory is not ruled out, but it has not been confirmed yet."
In a Facebook post, he reiterated his call "on all international partners" — the U.S., Britain and Canada in particular — to share data and evidence relevant to the crash. He also announced plans to discuss the investigation with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later on Friday.
Pompeo also called Canadian Foreign Minister François‑Philippe Champagne to offer his condolences for the Canadians who perished in the crash and offered "U.S. support for full cooperation with any investigation," the State Department said.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko tweeted that he and the president met with U.S. Embassy officials Friday and obtained "important data" about the crash. The minister didn't specify what kind of data it was, but said it would be "processed by our specialists."
In an interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham that aired late Thursday, Pompeo said commercial airliners need to know if it is safe to fly into and out of Tehran.
"If the international community needs to shut down that airport, so be it," he said. "We need to get to the bottom of this very, very quickly."
Germany's Lufthansa airline said it and subsidiaries are canceling flights to and from Tehran for the next 10 days as a precautionary measure, citing the "unclear security situation for the airspace around Tehran airport." Other airlines have been making changes to avoid Iranian airspace.
Britain's Foreign Office has advised against all travel to Iran, and against all air travel to, from or within the country.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi as saying Iran "has invited both Ukraine and the Boeing company to participate in the investigations." He later said a 10-member Canadian delegation was heading to Iran to assist victims' families.
Iran had initially said it would not allow Boeing to take part in the probe, going against prevailing international norms on crash investigations. It later invited the U.S. accident-investigating agency to take part in the investigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board said late Thursday that it would "evaluate its level of participation," but its role could be limited by U.S. sanctions on Iran. U.S. officials have also expressed concern about sending employees to Iran because of the heightened tensions.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday that his department would grant licenses to allow global investigators to travel to Iran and participate in the investigation.
Under rules set by a United Nations aviation organization, the NTSB is entitled to participate because the crash involved a Boeing 737-800 jet that was designed and built in the U.S.
The French air accident investigation agency, known by the French acronym BEA, is also taking part in the probe. The plane's engine was designed by CFM International, a joint company between French group Safran and U.S. group GE Aviation.
A preliminary Iranian investigative report released Thursday said that the airliner pilots never made a radio call for help and that the burning plane was trying to turn back for the airport when it went down.
The Iranian report suggested that a sudden emergency struck the Boeing 737, operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, just minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport early Wednesday.
Those findings are not inconsistent with the effect of a surface-to-air missile. Such missiles are designed to explode near aircraft, shredding them with shrapnel. There is no need to score a direct hit, and a stricken plane may look like it is turning back when in fact it is disintegrating.
Abedzadeh, the senior aviation official, said authorities have recovered two black box flight recorders, saying they are "damaged" but readable. They may shed further light on what caused the crash.
Confronted by persistent questions about his military action in the Middle East, President Donald Trump and his top officials offered a string of fresh explanations Friday, with Trump now contending Iranian militants had planned major attacks on four U.S. embassies.
Just hours earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said the U.S. didn't know when or where attacks might occur. Trump and other officials insisted anew that Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani had posed an imminent threat to the U.S., but they rebuffed repeated attempts to explain what they meant by "imminent."
Trump, meanwhile, announced additional sanctions against Iran, which he had promised after a barrage of missiles fired by the Islamic State against American bases in Iraq earlier this week.
Those Iranian missiles, which caused no casualties, were prompted by the U.S. drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week in Baghdad. That U.S. assault set off a chain of events that may have included the downing of a Ukrainian jetliner, possibly by an Iranian missile, and calls by the Iraqi government to expel U.S. troops from their country.
At the White House, Trump issued an executive order adding additional U.S. sanctions to the already long list his administration had imposed in an effort to force Iran to accept a new agreement that would curb its nuclear program and to halt support for militant groups throughout the Middle East.
Trump declared the U.S. was holding Iran responsible for attacks against the United States as well as a threat to U.S. service members, diplomats and civilians — an apparent reference to the justification for killing Soleimani.
"The United States will continue to counter the Iranian regime's destructive and destabilizing behavior," he said.
But Trump and others faced continuing questions over their claims of an "imminent" threat. Members of Congress said Pompeo and other officials did not provide sufficient detail or justification in briefings this week.
Define what you mean by imminent, Pompeo was asked Friday at a White House news conference.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin brief reporters about additional sanctions placed on Iran, at the White House, Friday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Washington. AP Photo
"I don't know exactly which minute," Pompeo said. "We don't know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear. Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests and those attacks were imminent."
Both Pompeo and Trump had said U.S. embassies were threatened. The secretary of state broadened it to include "American facilities," including military bases throughout the region. "This was going to happen, and American lives were at risk," he said.
Trump gave a more worrisome number but still no specifics in a later comment.
"I can reveal that I believe it probably would've been four embassies," he told Fox News in an interview taped Friday.
He spoke amid revelations by U.S. officials that the American military had tried, but failed, to kill another senior Iranian commander on the same day that Soleimani was killed. The targeting of Abdul Reza Shahlai was apparently part of an effort to cripple the leadership of Iran's Quds Force, which the U.S. has designated a terror organization along with the larger Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the killing of Soleimani "provocative and disproportionate," and other members said they were unconvinced after a closed-door briefing on the intelligence.
"President Trump recklessly assassinated Qasem Soleimani," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat. "He had no evidence of an imminent threat or attack."
The new sanctions were in immediate response to Iran's firing of a barrage of missiles at American bases in neighboring Iraq this week after the killing of Soleimani. No one was injured. The larger U.S. goal is to force Iran to negotiate a new agreement on limiting its nuclear program.
In 2018, Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement signed under President Barack Obama that traded curbs on the program for the easing of sanctions. Since then, the administration has added additional economic measures that have created hardship in Iran and brought its oil revenue to historic lows but have failed to bring the Iranian government to the negotiating table.
The sanctions added Friday include measures aimed at eight senior Iranian officials involved in what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called "destabilizing" activities throughout the Middle East as well as Tuesday's missile barrage.
Those measures, which would freeze any assets the officials have in U.S. jurisdiction and prohibit financial transactions with them, are largely symbolic since such senior figures are unlikely to have assets under American control after decades of hostility between the two nations.
But other measures announced Friday could have a significant effect on strategically important sectors of the Iranian economy, said Ben Davis, chief research officer at research and data analytics firm Kharon.
The executive order grants the administration power to place anyone involved, even indirectly, in the construction, manufacturing, textile or mining sector on a global financial blacklist. It also targets 17 of the largest steel and iron manufacturers — one of the few growth spots in the hobbled Iranian economy — along with three foreign companies, including two based in China, under secondary sanctions.
"It sends a signal to other foreign firms that continue to do business with Iranian steel producers that this is off limits," said Davis, a former Treasury Department official.
Adnan Mazarei, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the sanctions will hurt an Iranian economy that was forced to cut fuel subsidies earlier this year, triggering nationwide protests, but they also will make it harder for government to negotiate with the U.S.
"This will be seen as another sign that the U.S. government cannot be taken at its word when it says it wants to negotiate," Mazarei said.
Mnuchin insisted the sanctions are working and have deprived Iran of tens of billions of dollars. "They would be using that for terrorist activities throughout the region and to enable them to do more bad things," he said. "And there's no question, by cutting off the economics to the region, we are having an impact."
Unknown gunmen shot dead a reporter and a cameraman on Friday after they covered anti-government protest in Iraq's southern city of Basra, the Dijlah TV channel said.
The reporter, Ahmed Abdul Samad, and the cameraman, Safaa Ghali, worked for the Dijlah TV. They were shot dead inside their car while they were leaving the protest site in Basra, south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, the report said.
The killing came as massive demonstrations were held during the day in Baghdad and nine of Iraqi central and southern provinces, renewing their demands for comprehensive reforms, including nominating an independent prime minister to form a new government to prepare for early general elections.
The demonstrators also condemned the United States and Iran for what they described as interference in the internal affairs of Iraq and turning Iraq to an arena to settle their accounts.
In the past week, the U.S. killed a senior Iranian commander in a drone attack near the Baghdad International Airport, and Iran fired on Wednesday more than a dozen of missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops in retaliation.
Mass anti-government demonstrations have continued in Iraq since last October, demanding comprehensive reform, fight against corruption, better public services and more jobs.
The Islamic State group gloated over the recent U.S. killing of a senior Iranian general, who rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the extremists.
In the first IS comments since Gen. Qassem Soleimani's slaying, the group said his death "pleased the hearts of believers." The editorial was released in the group's al-Nabaa online newspaper late Thursday.
Although the U.S. and Iran strictly avoided working together directly, they were once on the same side in the fight against IS. Neither side wants to see the extremists stage a comeback.
But as the various players in Iraq jockey to come out ahead in a post-Soleimani landscape, Islamic State militants may find an opening. Thousands of fighters are scattered among the group's sleeper cells, and have claimed attacks in both Iraq and neighboring Syria in recent months.
As the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, Soleimani was one of the main commanders on the ground spearheading the fight against IS. He sent thousands of Iran-backed fighters to Iraq and Syria to battle the extremists, and directed Iraqi Shiite militias as well. A top Iraqi militia commander was killed alongside Soleimani in last week's U.S. drone strike.
The IS editorial said that its members tried for years to kill the two commanders, but that "God brought their end at the hands of their allies." It said both men "have gone too far in shedding the blood of Muslims in Iraq and Syria."
Iraq's caretaker prime minister has now asked Washington to start working out a road map for withdrawing the more than 5,000 American troops in Iraq, in response to Soleimani's killing. But the U.S. State Department on Friday bluntly rejected the request.
Iraqis have felt furious and helpless at being caught in the middle of fighting between Baghdad's two closest allies.