The passenger plane, bound for the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, had just left Tehran’s international airport Wednesday when it lost contact with ground control and plummeted into a field. A preliminary investigation by Iran found that the Ukraine International Airlines jet was on fire before it went down, citing witness statements that the plane had tried to turn around.
However, Ukrainian investigators have been considering the possibility that an antiaircraft missile brought down the jet. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told The Washington Post that it was likely that Iranian forces accidentally shot down the plane.
President Trump told reporters Thursday that he had “suspicions” about what had happened to the plane. “Someone could have made a mistake on the other side,” Trump said, adding, “It has nothing to do with us.”
The jet was destroyed in the midst of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran in the wake of the killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike Friday in Baghdad. Roughly four hours before the Wednesday plane crash, Iran had launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles targeting U.S. personnel in Iraq, an unprecedented direct strike against U.S. forces.
The allegations of a shoot-down would mirror a tragedy that has hung over relations between the United States and Iran for more than three decades, fueling grievances and suspicion between the two nations.
On July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by the U.S. military. The flight, a passenger jet that had originated in Tehran and had already stopped in Bandar Abbas, Iran, was flying over the Strait of Hormuz toward its destination, Dubai, when it was hit by two surface-to-air missiles.
Though Pentagon officials at first denied any knowledge of the incident, it soon emerged that the plane had been targeted by the USS Vincennes, a cruiser that had been involved in a skirmish with Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf and had mistaken the passenger jet for an Iranian warplane.
President Ronald Reagan expressed sympathy for the “terrible human tragedy” but suggested that the plane had “failed to heed repeated warnings.” However, an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, found that U.S. military ships in the region did not have the equipment necessary to monitor civilian air-traffic-control frequencies.
Iran reached a settlement with the United States in 1996 after it sued in the International Court of Justice. The U.S. government refused to accept liability but agreed to pay $61.8 million to the families of victims.
Though the tragedy appears to have largely faded from public memory in the United States, the memory of it lingers in Iran, where it is frequently commemorated.
At the time, many suspected that the United States struck down the plane deliberately in a bid to aid Iraq in the war it was fighting with Iran. Iranian hard-liners have long suggested that the downing of Flight 655 shows that the United States cannot be trusted.
“Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter after Trump threatened earlier this week to target 52 Iranian sites, a reference to the number of Americans who were held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981.
Rouhani, who has previously supported dialogue with the United States, was referring to the number of people killed aboard the 1988 flight. “Never threaten the Iranian nation,” he said.
A U.S. official told The Post that authorities think the Ukrainian plane was probably hit by an SA-15 surface-to-air missile, a Russian-made system also known as a Tor air-defense system. Ukrainian officials have said they want to search the site for evidence of Russian missiles.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, wrote on Facebook that a Ukrainian investigative team sent to Iran includes specialists who helped probe the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine.
That disaster killed all 298 people aboard. Investigators later concluded that a Russian military missile had shot down the plane.