Iran Jet Crash Leaves Mystery With Probe Curbed by U.S. Tensions

By Christopher Jasper, Arsalan Shahla and Daryna Krasnolutska | January 8, 2020

Investigations into the deadly crash of a Boeing Co. jet in Iran will be hampered by escalating tensions with the U.S., amid speculation the plane might even have been a victim of Tehran’s own air defense system.

Iranian authorities said an engine fire most likely led to the loss of the Ukraine International Airlines 737-800 early Wednesday, with 176 people on board. The crash came hours after a barrage of missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq. As theories multiplied, the Ukrainian embassy in Tehran amended an earlier statement on its website, in which it ruled out terrorism, instead making no comment on possible causes.

The tragedy recalled the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet by a surface-to-air missile during the conflict over Crimea, eventually blamed by investigators on pro-Russia rebels. Complicating matters, Iranian officials haven’t been clear about how much access U.S. experts will be given to the probe, or to the 737’s flight data recorders.

Iran’s Disaster Mitigation and Management Organization said early assessments indicated the cause was a technical issue, while the transport ministry suggested an engine fire was involved.

A state-run news outlet cited an official at Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization as saying the pilots didn’t declare an emergency, while an amateur video purportedly of the stricken plane showed a bright image descending steeply before reaching the ground.

Ukraine International said 167 passengers and nine crew were on the 737, an older version of Boeing’s narrow-body workhorse that predates the Max model grounded following two fatal crashes. The plane came down at 6:18 a.m. Wednesday in Sabashahr, near the Iranian capital.

Television footage showed recovery efforts at the crash site, with debris spread across a charred field. Ukraine’s foreign ministry said about half those on board held Iranian citizenship and that there were more than 60 Canadian citizens, as well as Swedes, Afghans, Britons and Ukrainians.

Ukraine International Vice President Ihor Sosnovskyi said in Kyiv that the plane, delivered to the airline new in 2016, was in good condition and had its last shop visit on Jan. 6. He said the crew was also very experienced and that there were no indications of human error, while declining to comment on possible reasons for the crash, the company’s first since it was set up in 1992.

Under established protocols, Iran would lead any investigation because the crash occurred on its soil. Ukraine Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk said his government has informed Iran that its experts should take part.

Few nations have the expertise and technical facilities to conduct a full accident probe, however, so the U.S., France, Britain or other countries have provided assistance in the past. The plane’s crash-proof recorders will have to be downloaded in a specialist lab.

International rules for air-crash probes mean the countries that made the plane and its engines usually participate, providing technical expertise. But the current turmoil between Iran and the U.S. may complicate the involvement of the National Transportation Safety Board and Boeing.

Black Boxes

Hassan Rezaeifar, head of the Civil Aviation Organization’s accident-investigation office, said it’s for Iran to decide how and where the plane’s so-called black boxes are decoded, “as per the law,” according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

However, Reza Jafarzadeh, a spokesman for the aviation organization, told Bloomberg that his nation observes international protocols, and that Ukraine, “as well as the planemaker,” can take part in the probe.

France’s BEA hasn’t been contacted for assistance but has helped Iran in the past, said a spokesman, Sebastien Barthe.

The tragedy comes at a tense time for both Iran and Boeing.

The Islamic republic fired more than a dozen missiles at U.S. bases in retaliation for the killing of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. Just prior to the crash, U.S. aviation regulators issued new restrictions barring civilian flights over Iraq and Iran.

Boeing Crisis

Boeing is still gripped by its worst crisis after the two Max disasters led to the grounding of that fleet in March. The company said in a statement that its thoughts are with crew, passengers and their families after the tragedy, without commenting on the cause. The planemaker’s stock declined 1.6% in early U.S. trading.

The website flightradar24 showed the 737-800 jet left Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport for Ukraine’s Boryspil International Airport early Wednesday morning local time.

Safran SA confirmed that the twin-engine plane was powered by turbines from its CFM venture with General Electric Co., while declining to comment further.

The jet lifted off and climbed to about 7,900 feet and was traveling at roughly 300 miles an hour when it stopped transmitting its position and disappeared, according to data supplied by FlightRadar24. Other aircraft operating out of Tehran were tracked normally, said FlightRadar24 spokesman Ian Petchenik.

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