THE accidental shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger aircraft, and the aftermath of the incident, has exposed the weaknesses in Iran’s defence strategy. Together, international isolation and the domestic blowback have put the regime in a catch-22 situation. The tragic blunder that resulted in the death of 176 people on board has called into question the ability of Iran’s military and civilian leadership to tread with caution in a potentially explosive situation. Why aerospace commander Brig-Gen Ali Hajizadeh’s earlier request that the area be declared a no-fly zone had been rejected is puzzling. In times of such heightened tensions, the regime should have closed off Iranian airspace for commercial flights — many international airlines themselves had decided to avoid flying over the country. What is also of concern is that Iranian defences failed to distinguish between a hostile and commercial aircraft, or mistook the plane for a missile. The fact that the passenger aircraft had taken off from Tehran airport and was not coming from outside Iran’s borders should have been enough reason not to flag it as an immediate threat, especially when all of the country’s defence systems were on full alert, hours after Iran had struck two Iraqi bases housing American military personnel. The downing of the airliner has rightly caused alarm in the region at a time when the threat of war still looms.
Iran may have staved off greater international pressure by admitting its “unforgiveable mistake” but it appears as if the regime with its damaged credibility might have to make further concessions in the face of mass public protests in the country. Iranians are justifiably infuriated at the incident that left a large number of Iranians and Iranian-Canadians, among others, dead — and at their leadership’s initial effort to deflect the blame. Cracking down on the protesting public — that is also driven by domestic woes — is not going to help the regime. The focus must now be on a transparent inquiry and cooperation with international authorities, especially the affected countries, who want a thorough investigation.
Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2020