Officials in France confirmed Monday that they had received and were salvaging data from the black boxes of Ukrainian International Airlines (UIA) Flight 752, which the government of Iran shot down in January.
Iran refused to hand over the black boxes for months, first claiming its officials were working on extracting information on the flight’s last moments, then insisting the black boxes had been damaged when the plane crashed, and finally admitting that Tehran did not have the technological capacity to handle the boxes. Black boxes document what occurs on flights in the event of a crash to help investigators figure out how the flight failed to conclude a safe journey.
Iran’s military shot the plane down shortly after it took flight from Tehran on January 8, apparently mistaking it for an American missile. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ordered a missile attack on American targets in Iraq that day in retaliation for President Donald Trump ordering an airstrike against Major General Qasem Soleimani, the dead of the Quds Ford of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization; the Quds Force is its international cell, responsible for hundreds of American casualties in Iraq and Syria under Soleimani.
Despite being entirely culpable for striking down the commercial airliner, killing 176 civilians — many among them Ukrainians and Canadians, whose governments were not involved in conflicts with Soleimani — Iran refused to hand over the black boxes for months. Finally, in late June, Foreign Ministry Mohammad Javad Zarif told his Canadian counterpart François-Philippe Champagne that Tehran would ship the black boxes to France to have its data extracted “within the next few days.”
BEA, a French accident investigation bureau, confirmed on Monday that the black boxes had arrived in France and that technical work had begun with them. According to the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, Canadian, American, Swedish, and British investigators will “observe” the process by which the boxes’ information is extracted. Tehran had vehemently rejected any American involvement in the process of investigating the attack on the UIA flight for months.
It is unclear how much more information the black boxes could provide to clarify the circumstances of the mass killing of those aboard the flight. Iran admitted that it had shot down the plane in June. The nation’s Civil Aviation Authority — which had declared in January, “what is obvious … is that no missile has hit the plane” — admitted that a missile hit the plane last month. The government agency blamed “human error” in the form of what state propaganda outlet PressTV called “the mismanagement of an air defense unit’s radar system” for an Iranian soldier deciding to shoot down the plane. The “mismanagement” resulted in the system targeting the plane.
Prior to the official admission of guilt, the Iranian government insisted that the likely reason for the plane’s explosion was either a failure of the mechanical system or human error on the part of the plane’s crew, both of which UIA immediately dismissed as unlikely. Both possibilities, Iranian officials affirmed, were the fault of the American government, which has no ties to UIA. According to UIA, the plane was one of the best in their fleet and their crew highly experienced; the airline noted it has never had a crash on its record.
The Iranian government engaged in other suspicious behavior in the immediate aftermath of the plane crash, most conspicuously its order to bulldoze the crash site to destroy all evidence that could suggest the IRGC shot it down. Tehran blocked journalists and independent investigators from the site until it had managed to bulldoze much of the significant evidence.
About a week after the flight, the Civil Aviation Authority, which declared it “obvious” Iran had not shot down the flight, admitted to just that. The Iranian Parliament ignored the lie and celebrated the admission as “heartwarming,” giving the IRGC the credit. By April — long after global attention had left the plane crash, Iranian lawmakers were celebrating the killing of 176 civilians because, according to lawmaker Hassan Rorouzi, the plane had “come under America’s control,” a claim he did not corroborate with evidence.
Iran has zealously guarded the black boxes since, initially insisting it did not have to hand them over because Iran’s engineers had the ability to decode them without help.
“Generally speaking, Iran has the potential and know-how to decode the black box. Everybody knows that,” Iranian Civil Aviation Authority chief Ali Abedzadeh asserted in early January, shortly before claiming that the delay in extracting the black box data was due to “damage” from the crash.
“The black box of this very Ukrainian Boeing 737 is damaged,” Abedzadeh. Boeing, which manufactured the plane, is an American, not Ukrainian, company.
By the end of January, the Civil Aviation Authority admitted that it had requested help from Washington to decode the boxes, but it still spent months refusing the hand them over.
The night Iran shot down UIA Flight 752, the IRGC had launched a missile attack on Iraqi airbases housing American troops in response to the elimination of Qasem Soleimani from the battlefield. Soleimani, American officials insisted, was planning an “imminent” attack on American troops. As head of the Quds Force, Soleimani was responsible for the IRGC’s international outreach to terrorist groups around the world with sympathy toward Iran, including groups like the Venezuelan narco-regime and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of pro-Iran militias in Iraq. The strike that eliminated Soleimani also targeted Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades, a PMF coalition member.