All 176 aboard a passenger plane were killed by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile Wednesday, hours after an Iranian retaliatory strike on an Iraqi base occupied by U.S. troops. The circumstances surrounding Iran’s responsibility for this tragedy were hard to deny from the moment it happened, yet the Islamic Republic’s military, diplomats and clergy-led government went overboard in their bid to lie and cast blame elsewhere.
Although Tehran is solely responsible, this horrific tragedy is the result of two nations refusing to resolve their differences diplomatically during four decades of confrontation and, instead, opting for a course of escalation and brinkmanship. Calmer heads now seem to be prevailing on both sides, but the time for leaders to exercise restraint is before tragedy strikes, not in sheepish remorse after the fact.
Iran’s first mistake was failing to halt civilian flights as hostilities escalated following the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike that killed Iran’s most powerful military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. After threatening retaliation, Iran launched roughly a dozen missiles on Wednesday targeting two bases in Iraq where U.S. troops are based. Both sides were on high alert when a Kyiv-bound passenger jet was allowed to take off from Tehran International Airport. Agencies regulating U.S., European, Australian and Asian civilian international aviation had already issued a ban on civilian overflights of Iran and Iraq.
Iranian military commanders failed to coordinate with civilian flight controllers. After the plane went down, top Iranian officials insisted that mechanical failures had caused the crash even though there was no evidence to back the claim. It was a blatant lie.
But then something more disturbing occurred. The government acknowledged that the military had shot down the plane but explained that the airliner had veered toward a “sensitive military center” and assumed the “flying posture and altitude of an enemy target.” That wording appeared to echo the explanation given by President Ronald Reagan’s administration in 1988 after the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian jumbo jet over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 aboard. In that case, U.S. officials lied repeatedly about the circumstances and tried to blame the airliner pilot for errors that were solely the fault of the Vincennes’ crew and commanders.
Despite multiple diplomatic openings since 1979, leaders in neither Tehran nor Washington appear to have learned the most fundamental lessons of this simmering conflict: the hotter the confrontation gets, the higher the potential for catastrophe. With nuclear weapons potentially entering the mix, the imperative is beyond urgent for the two nations’ leaders to work out more effective means of communication than missiles and proxy militias.
Judging from protests that erupted in Iran to demand accountability from their leaders, it’s clear that Iranians are nearing their limit of patience. When will Americans reach theirs?