Ukrainian plane crash: Human error or strategic operation?

The entire event prompts the question of how long the Iranian regime can carry on with suppressing protesters, and how this strategic operation might backfire.

General view of the debris of the Ukraine International Airlines, flight PS752, Boeing 737-800 plane that crashed after take-off from Iran's Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran January 8, 2020 (photo credit: SCREENSHOT/REUTERS)
General view of the debris of the Ukraine International Airlines, flight PS752, Boeing 737-800 plane that crashed after take-off from Iran's Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran January 8, 2020
(photo credit: SCREENSHOT/REUTERS)
The early hours of January 8 were stressful for the international community as Iran fired ballistic missiles at the Ain al-Assad military base near Baghdad and targeted Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Although it was not an entirely successful operation, as five out of 22 missiles did not explode, the event created global anxiety, and even more among the Iranian officials.
As the world observed an unprecedented escalation between Iran and the US, Tehran was scrupulous not to cause any casualties on the American side, even though the Iranian media were fed by the regime propaganda claiming 80 Americans were killed during the attack.
On the one hand, the Iranian regime is not an amateur incapable of understanding the flow of information in a modern world. On the other, the Iranian people are not ignorant in regard to learning the facts about the events.
After the assassination of Qasem Soleimani by the US, the Iranian regime and the supreme leader promised “hard retaliation.” The Quds Force general was way more important than only a military commander. He shaped and implemented the Iranian regional policy throughout the Middle East using the Shia proxies that were more loyal to the general than to Tehran.
The supreme leader shed tears over Soleimani’s coffin, and the hardliners in Iran demanded retaliation. However, a flimsy attack in which five unexploded missiles out of 22 and an intentional zero casualties on the American side would not satisfy these hardliners.
The Iranian regime had two choices: first, to carry out further attacks on American bases in which Tehran did not want to, as it was clearly mentioned in the IRGC statement shortly after the missile attacks; and second, to find an alternative to redirect the crisis narration into a matter that Tehran could handle easier, or at least, be more familiar with.
The 22 ballistic missiles, 17 at Ain al-Assad and five toward Erbil, were fired between 1:45 a.m. and 2:15 a.m. Immediately, a statement by the IRGC was released, conveying the message that the attack was over. Four hours later, at 6:14 a.m., Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 was shot down, only two minutes after its departure.
For the first three days after the crash, Tehran threw a net of ambiguity over the public by a variety of incoherent statements which trapped Iranians in confusion. The demand for retaliation by the hardliners faded away as the country went into a new episode of collective grief.

INCONTROVERTIBLY, THE state actors were not able to withhold the truth from the Iranians any longer, so they surrendered and slowly admitted that the plane was shot down. However, the weighty act of shooting down a commercial flight, which resulted in the death of 176 civilians, was reduced to “human error” without a drop of tears from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, or any apology or public mourning similar to the one arranged for Soleimani.
The Iranian regime does not seek direct confrontation with the US, as that might lead to a war which Tehran cannot afford. Moreover, if a war between the US and Iran breaks out, the loser will be the Iranian side for a number of obvious reasons, for instance, the imbalanced military power and lack of domestic or international support.
Undoubtedly, the Iranian military is not as advanced and accurate as, say, the US or Israeli military. Still, it is not so bungling as to mistakenly shoot down an airplane four hours after a ballistic missile attack at a US base. Even more, if the IRGC could deliberately avoid hitting any US personnel in an attack aiming at a target 700 kilometers away, it can avoid shooting down a commercial aircraft above its capital.
The Iranian regime shot down the Ukrainian airline’s aircraft purposefully to convert the regional crisis that had put Iran in direct confrontation with the US into a domestic affair similar to many more in the history of the Islamic Republic. The plane crash has not been a “human error” or caused by any confusion during the missile attacks in Iraq.
Shifting the narration of the crisis from foreign to domestic was vital for Tehran, as the regime is fully aware that a chain of protests inside Iran would be an easier path to survival than further confrontation with the US. The Iranian regime has long experience suppressing Iranians for the past 40 years, while any confrontation with a superpower would endanger it.
The entire event prompts the question of how long the Iranian regime can carry on with suppressing protesters, and how this strategic operation might backfire.
The writer has worked as a human rights observer and journalist in Colombia, Iraq and Greece, and worked with refugees in Greece from 2014-2017. He is currently studying religious and Middle Eastern studies in Oslo. Born in Iranian Kurdistan, he was exiled and now lives in Norway. You can follow him on Twitter at @RamyarHassani or email him at [email protected]