WASHINGTON — American and allied officials said Thursday that they had intelligence that missiles fired by Iranian military forces were responsible for the downing of a Ukrainian jetliner in Iran and the deaths of all aboard this week in Iran, most likely by accident.
The disclosures suggested that the deaths were a consequence of the heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran that have played out since a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general last week.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, citing a preliminary review of the evidence, called for a full investigation “to be convinced beyond all doubt.” The jetliner was carrying 63 Canadians among its some 176 passengers and crew.
“We recognize that this may have been done accidentally,” Trudeau said at a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario. “The evidence suggests very clearly a possible and probable cause for the crash.”
President Donald Trump, speaking earlier at the White House, said only that he suspected that the downing of the plane was the result of “a mistake on the other side.” Senior U.S. officials were more forthcoming, saying they had a high level of confidence in their findings. U.S. intelligence agencies determined that a Russian-made Iranian air defense system fired two surface-to-air missiles at the plane, one official said.
And video verified by The New York Times appeared to show an Iranian missile exploding near a plane above Parand, near Tehran’s airport, the area where the jetliner, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, stopped transmitting its signal before it crashed.
Those aboard the plane likely faced horrifying final moments, starting with an explosion as the missiles detonated just outside it, sending shrapnel and debris spiraling through the fuselage. The plane turned back toward the airport, then began its uncontrolled descent.
American satellites, designed to track missile launches, detected the firing of the Iranian short-range interceptor. U.S. intelligence agencies later picked up Iranian communications confirming that the system brought down the Ukrainian airliner, officials said.
An initial Iranian report released Thursday said that the plane, bound for the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was in flames before it hit the ground but sent no distress signal. A security camera captured its impact: first the predawn darkness, then a series of blinding bursts of light in the distance, followed by a storm of burning debris in the foreground.
Even before world leaders and U.S. officials confirmed the intelligence assessment, the mysterious circumstances of the disaster had raised suspicions that a missile brought down the airliner. The crash occurred hours after Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at U.S. military targets in Iraq, and Tehran, bracing for possible American retaliation, readied its ample air defense system.
After Iran began firing missiles early Wednesday in retaliation for the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, international airlines rerouted flights away from Iran, and the Federal Aviation Administration barred American carriers from the airspace in the region. The new information about the tragic mistake with its air defense systems raised questions about why Iranian authorities had not stopped flights in and out of Tehran.
Iran denied that its military was responsible for the crash of the plane, a Boeing 737. Ali Rabiei, an Iranian government spokesman, called it “a big lie” and blamed the accusations on “psychological warfare” against Tehran.
In addition to denying responsibility, Iran invited the National Transportation Safety Board of the United States to assist in the investigation despite previous reports that the Americans would not be involved, according to correspondence reviewed by The Times. The board assigned an investigator to the crash, a spokesman said Thursday evening.
Iranian authorities recovered the plane’s “black box” flight data recorders, but they were damaged by the crash and fire, the Iranian report said. That raised the possibility that some of the information stored in them electronically had been destroyed, but investigators can retrieve useful data even from damaged recorders.
Iran also invited Boeing, the jet’s manufacturer, to help investigate the black box, a government spokesman said, according to Iran’s official news agency, IRNA. Boeing is “supporting the NTSB in the investigation,” said a spokesman, Gordon Johndroe.
Sanctions against Iran prevent Boeing from contacting its government without an export license, and Johndroe said the company is applying for one.
Canadian investigators were also arranging to visit the crash site, a senior government official said.
Ukraine was negotiating with Iran to allow investigators to search the site for possible rocket fragments, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, told Censor.net, a Ukrainian news outlet.
Evidence gathered by American and allied intelligence contradicted Iran’s denials.
The U.S. military’s Space-Based Infrared System, which relies on satellites in various orbits to track the launch and flight path of ballistic missiles, detected the missile launch. While American missile defense sensors are primarily meant to defend against long-range launches, they can often detect launches of air defense systems, including those designed to work at low altitudes, officials have said.
On Wednesday, U.S. officials combined the information from the satellites with intelligence from intercepted calls to determine what brought down the plane.
Echoing Trudeau, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain confirmed that intelligence pinned the shoot-down on the Iranian government and that it “may well have been unintentional.”
Trump was more evasive earlier in the day. “Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” Trump said. “It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood and somebody could have made a mistake.”
His reluctance to assign blame may be an attempt to avoid inflaming tensions at a time when both governments were taking steps to de-escalate the military confrontation of recent days. The revelations about the intelligence prompted accusations that the U.S. military’s killing of Soleimani set off a chain of events that led to Iran accidentally downing the jet.
“This is the responsibility of the Iranians,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “But the context was a situation in which they were preparing themselves for a possible attack by the United States. This might not have happened two or three weeks ago.”