When the Revolutionary Guard officer spotted what he thought was an unidentified aircraft near Tehran’s international airport in Iran, he had seconds to decide whether to pull the trigger.
Iran had just fired a barrage of ballistic missiles at U.S. forces, the country was on high alert for an American counterattack, and the Iranian military was warning of incoming cruise missiles.
The officer tried to reach the command center for authorization to shoot but couldn’t get through. So he fired an anti-aircraft missile. Then another. The plane, which turned out to be a Ukrainian jetliner with 176 people on board, crashed and exploded in a ball of fire.
Within minutes, the top commanders of the Guard realized what they had done. And at that moment, they began to cover it up.
For days, they refused to tell even President Hassan Rouhani, whose government was publicly denying that the plane had been shot down. When they finally told him, he gave them an ultimatum: come clean or he would resign.
Only then, 72 hours after the plane crashed, did Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, step in and order the government to acknowledge its fatal mistake.
The New York Times pieced together a chronology of those three days by interviewing Iranian diplomats, current and former government officials, ranking members of the Guard and people close to the supreme leader’s inner circle and by examining official public statements and state media reports.
The reporting exposes the government’s behind-the-scenes debate over covering up Iran’s responsibility for the crash while shocked Iranians, grieving relatives and countries with citizens aboard the plane waited for the truth.
The new details also demonstrate the outsize power of the Guard, which effectively sidelined the elected government in a moment of national crisis, and could deepen what many Iranians already see as a crisis of legitimacy for the Guard and the government.
The bitter divisions in Iran’s government persist and are bound to affect the investigation into the crash, negotiations over compensation and the unresolved debate over accountability.