The U.S. military confirmed to the Associated Press on Thursday that American fighter jets intercepted an Iranian commercial flight over Syria, calling it a “standard visual inspection,” after Tehran complained that the incident amounted to “terrorism.”
A Mahan Air flight from Tehran, Iran, to Beirut, Lebanon, reportedly had to engage in dramatic maneuvers to avoid crashing into fighter jets over al-Tanf, a region of Syria where the U.S. maintains a military presence. Iranian state media circulated videos allegedly from the inside of the plane showing passengers bleeding from the head after crashing into the plane’s roof. The flight landed without incident in Beirut later on Thursday.
Iranian state media initially blamed the Israeli government for the exchange between the Mahan Air flight and the fighter jets, then claimed the pilot of the flight had communicated with the pilots of the fighter jets, who identified themselves as American. The fact that Iran claimed the commercial flight pilot spoke to the Americans, but has not specified what they discussed that resulted in the Iranian pilot flying the plane in a way the injured his passengers, leaves many unanswered questions.
The incident occurred on the same day that the government of Ukraine announced the black boxes aboard Ukrainian International Airlines (UIA) Flight 752 confirmed that Iranian “illegal interference” had taken it down. The Iranian military shot the flight out of the sky, killing all 176 people on board, in January.
The spokesman for U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon’s wing that covers the Middle East, confirmed to the Associated Press that a U.S. military fighter jet was involved in the incident, calling it “a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) from the airliner.”
“The visual inspection occurred to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at al-Tanf garrison,” the spokesman, U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Urban, explained. “Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane, the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft.”
Urban’s version of the incident differs from the Iranian government’s in that he claimed only one American fighter jet approached the flight and that it did so at a safe distance. As the AP noted, about 2,000 feet is the minimum safe distance. Iranian state media claimed that two jets approached at a distance of 328 feet, far less safe and likely to have resulted in further damage than what occurred. Even at 2,000 feet, AP suggested, planes can experience “wake turbulence.”
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Iran has not made clear why the pilot reacted so violently during the incident, particularly given that he was in open communication with the Americans. The Islamic regime is instead loudly accusing the United States of violating international law — declaring America’s presence in Syria at all criminal, given opposition from dictator and Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad — and calling the interaction “terrorism.”
“U.S. illegally occupies territory of another State and then harasses a scheduled civil airliner — endangering innocent civilian passengers — ostensibly to protect its occupation forces,” Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, posted on Twitter on Friday. “Audacity to compound lawlessness upon lawlessness. These outlaws must be stopped before disaster.”
The head of Iran’s “Transport and Urban Development” ministry, Mohammad Eslami, declared the interaction an “act of terror,” according to the Iranian news agency Tasnim. The Iranian Civil Aviation Organization claimed it would file an official complaint with international legal agencies, also calling it “a clear violation of the international law and the aviation standards and regulations.” The agency added it hoped the Assad dictatorship and the government of Lebanon, held hostage for years by the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah, would join in the complaint.
Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization has been under intense scrutiny for much of 2020 after Tehran shot down UIA Flight 752. In the immediate aftermath of the jet’s downing, the organization’s head Ali Abedzadeh insisted it was “obvious” that an Iranian missile had not taken down the plane, admitting to precisely this scenario days later. The Iranian military allegedly shot the plane down believing it to be an American missile, as the Iranian military was in the middle of bombing Iraqi military bases when it occurred. While Iran and the Iraqi government in Baghdad are allies, Iran was targeting bases housing U.S. troops in retaliation for the fatal drone strike on Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Forces. The Quds Force was responsible for hundreds of American deaths under Soleimani and in charge of most of Iran’s international terrorist operations. The IRGC is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
Abedzadeh also claimed that the Ukrainian flight’s black boxes had been damaged, refusing to hand them over to Ukraine or Boeing, which designed the plane in question, before finally admitting Iranian experts were simply not competent enough to operate the black boxes. After stonewalling for months, Iran handed the black boxes over to France last week. On Thursday, Ukraine announced that the boxes confirmed an “illegal interception” of the plane.
Mahan Air has long stood accused of aiding the IRGC. President Barack Obama sanctioned the airline in 2011 for allegedly offering material support in the form of clandestinely flying military equipment for the terrorist organization. President Donald Trump added to those sanctions in 2019.