The shooting down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner immediately after takeoff from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport last week is still shrouded in mystery. A total of 176 passengers and crew died in the ensuing crash after one or two missiles from a sophisticated Russian Tor-M1 anti-aircraft battery exploded near the plane. The Iranian regime initially denied any connection to the incident, but in the face of overwhelming evidence was forced to admit that their air defense system had downed the plane.
The Iranians said that it was a human error in which a “junior officer” mistook the plane for an American cruise missile. According to Brig. Gen. Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Aerospace Force, “The operator identified the plane as a cruise missile but was unable to contact the central air defense command to confirm it. So he had to choose between shooting it down or not, and he choose [sic] to do it.” Hajizadeh added that the operator “had 10 seconds to make a decision.”
In remarks broadcast on Iranian state television, Hajizadeh took full responsibility for the incident. “When I found out what had happened, I wanted to die. I said, I would rather die rather than be a witness to such an incident,” he said.
Nevertheless, it is hard to understand how such a “mistake” could have been made. A cruise missile flies much faster than a commercial aircraft, and would have been at a lower altitude. Several other commercial flights had taken off from the airport that day, and surely operators would have been familiar with the profile. The plane had a functioning transponder, which “squawks” its identification, and this would have been picked up by military radars, as well as the airport tower (which had just communicated with the pilots).
The Tor-M1 battery near the airport would be integrated with other radar equipment in the local air defense system, and the blip would have been marked for the operator as a commercial airliner. According to a source familiar with the system, to target the airliner the operator would have had to make a “command override choice.”
Perhaps a poorly trained operator panicked? Hard to believe. Did someone for some reason want to destroy a commercial flight? We don’t know, and we may never find out.
Protests in Iran have broken out over the government’s involvement in and initial denial of responsibility for the crash, in which 82 Iranians lost their lives. This is after protests against high gas prices led to the deaths of 1,500 Iranians at the hands of security forces. Iranians, especially educated ones and students, are showing their frustration with a regime that has expended resources on expansionist wars while oppressing the population at home.
The regime’s expansionism threatens the peace of the region as well as the world. The regime is engaged in terrorist mischief-making around the world, and has made one of the greatest nations in the world the captive of a medieval Islamist ideology that should not exist in the 21st century. It is the epicenter of global anti-Semitism. And it is pursuing nuclear weapons.
Iran’s aggression is precisely the kind of behavior that the United Nations was created to combat. And yet, more often than not, U.N. mechanisms work to abet rather than to hamper it.
The most desirable outcome would be for the Iranian people to overthrow the regime and establish an enlightened, democratic government in its place. Failing that, almost any government more concerned with the welfare of its people than with exporting its revolutionary Islamism, dominating the region, destroying Israel and threatening the rest of the world would be an improvement.
Rather than seeking to expand trade with Iran, as the European countries have done, the civilized nations of the world should cooperate to isolate and pressure the Iranian regime economically. Dissident forces in the country should receive support and encouragement to overthrow it. It may also be necessary to use limited force in order to prevent the regime from producing nuclear weapons. It seems clear that nothing short of that will stop them, since they see nuclear weapons as an impenetrable umbrella for their overall design—and they may be right. Therefore, they are willing to make almost any sacrifice—that is, to force their population to sacrifice—to achieve this goal. Time is short.
Although the general principle that nations should not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations is a worthy one, Iran under its revolutionary regime pursues policies that make it an existential danger to other nations. Ignoring its behavior and allowing it to continue, especially along with the development of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them all over the world, is foolhardy.
As far as I can tell, the main obstacle to a concerted international effort is the financial benefit some countries and influential individuals derive from their relationship with the regime. But nations that see themselves as the responsible adults of the world must put aside short-term gain and instead work together with the Iranian people for the long-term benefit of all. Regime change could be accomplished without invading Iran, and without destroying the country’s infrastructure and killing millions, because a significant proportion of the population would be on board.
The United States is the most powerful country in the world, and has the power and influence needed to lead a campaign against the ayatollahs. President Donald Trump appears to understand the need to take action, but unfortunately his political opponents are automatically against anything that he’s for, regardless of the intrinsic merit of his policy. In the case of Iran, the antagonism is particularly strong because the Obama administration chose to appease rather than confront the regime. The same “echo chamber” that gave us the JCPOA (the nuclear “deal”) is back and is working overtime.
My argument will likely fall on deaf ears in the case of those who see Trump as the Devil. This is particularly unfortunate because the situation will change drastically for the worse once Iran goes nuclear.
Victor Rosenthal was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., lived on a kibbutz through the 1980s and returned home to Israel in 2014 after 26 years in California. He writes at the Abu Yehuda blog.
This article first appeared on AbuYehuda.com.