There had already been indignation within Iran that USA had imposed draconian economic sanctions on the nation over Iran’s increasing belligerence in the region, walking away from a deal preventing Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon as it did so. However, the situation worsened when, in a planned assassination probably involving satellite eavesdropping on telephone messages and locations, the US military executed an MQ-9 Reaper drone/Hellfire missile attack on 3 January 2020 on a car near Baghdad airport which killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Major General Qasem Soleimani and four of his allies from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) of Iraq.
Iran’s ballistic missile strikes in retaliation
Iran decided to retaliate with a conventionally armed ballistic missile attacks on 7 January by 16 ballistic missiles on the Iraqi air bases Ayn al-Asad in Western Iraq and at Irbil in Northern Iraq, both of which had US forces based there. These were described by Iranian media to be Fateh 313 and Qiam missiles.
Commercial satellites were able to image the damage on the ground after the attack. Although no fatalities were caused, 11 were reportedly injured and major structures were hit, including two missiles hitting a main hall at the Ayn al-Asad camp. This accuracy was said to be both indicative of Iran’s good targeting and its intelligence capabilities.
The missile attacks were detected by US Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) early warning satellites, but embarrassingly for US forces and its allies, these ballistic missiles managed strike without being shot down by US missile defences (presumably Patriot missile batteries).
By making what was only a limited attack, Iran is believed to have been showing reticence in order to not make the situation worse by causing significant US casualties.
Unintentional fatal error: Iranian Surface-to-Air missile strikes down airliner
A few hours after Iran’s ballistic missile retaliation, a Ukranian airliner crashed near Tehran shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. It is now confirmed as having been accidentally shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) fired by Iran’s air defence forces in the militarily tense situation. A surface to air missile was apparently fired at the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 airliner (on Flight PS752) by an operator believing it to be an enemy cruise missile on its way to attack a target. All 176 passengers and crew on-board were killed.
Eye witnesses noted that there had been an explosion in the sky. The debris field showed that the aircraft had made a high velocity impact as it hit the ground in an explosive impact. No alarm calls had been made by either of the pilots before the crash.
The evidence of the missile shoot down was initially provided by US electronic intelligence derived from its satellite assets which witnessed the switch on of the SAM radar system which illuminates an aircraft target for the missiles’ semi-active guidance. Infra-red detecting early warning satellites were also reported to have witnesses the infra-red blip of missile launches and the subsequent explosion as they struck/passed near the aircraft.
Subsequent media posts online also apparently showed photographic imagery of debris nearby which apparently showed artifacts from a Russian-built “Tor” SAM (US Air Force/NATO code names: SA-15, Gauntlet). By the way, Iran also operates a copy of the venerable but respected US-built Hawk SAM system.
Later, a mobile phone film clip was released apparently showing the glowing ember of the exhaust flame of a SAM being launched into Tehran’s night sky and then a subsequent explosion of it apparently striking its target. International air safety experts were quick to assume that the sudden destruction of the Boeing 737-800 aircraft was consistent with its loss by missile explosion.
Iran’s government originally denied the reports that it had fired a SAM, refusing to hand over “black box” voice and data recorder evidence to the international community. However, three days later, Iran finally accepted that its armed forces were responsible for “unintentionally” shooting down the airliner by missile interception.
The shooting down of civilian airliners by surface-to-air missiles has become an increasing hazard. Sometimes these have been mistakes in times of military crisis or during military exercises. In 1988, the US Navy’s USS Vincennes guided missile cruiser shot down an Iran Air Airbus A-300 airliner (Flight 655) using its RIM-66 Standard SAM system, killing 290 passengers and crew as it did so, after mistaking it for a attacking Iranian F-14 fighter jet.
Another example was the accidental shooting down of Siberia Airlines Tupolev Tu 154 Flight 1812 in 2001 by a Ukranian S-200 (SA-5 Gammon) SAM during a military exercise.
In 2014, Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER on Flight MH17 was destroyed over Ukraine by a Russian-built “Buk” (SA-11 Gadfly) SAM operated by Russian-supported rebels who thought they were aiming at a Ukrainian cargo plane.
By the way, there was relief in the international community that, while Iran’s acceptance of its responsibility over this latest shoot down incident was very late, at least it did not try and deny its involvement altogether, or carry on muddying the waters with misinformation, as Russia did over the MH17 shoot down.
Nevertheless, there remains concern both within Iran and within Ukraine that their aviation authorities did not do enough to stop civilian airliners flying within a “war zone”. While arguments continue about the responsibility for the PS752 missile interception disaster, there was an element of international sympathy for Iran over the fact that the destruction the aircraft and its occupants was, at least, indirectly caused by the underlying military tension after assassination of Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani.
While there was an initial outcry over the assassination within Iran, the pendulum of sympathy has since swung the other way after Iranian government’s attempts to blame others for the air crash. The resulting public anger over the cause and over the failed cover-up attempt has caused mass protests within the country.
Comment by David Todd: The wisdom of prioritising the most imminent threats
While much of Iran’s population had already fallen out of love with the current Iranian government, of which Major Gen Qasem Soleimani was a part, for a time it seemed that by killing him, the Trump administration just might have turned him into a martyr and united the entire Iranian nation against USA. In the end, a trigger-happy SAM missile operator may have saved the Trump plan from backfiring. The national outrage within Iran over the Islamic regime’s cover-up the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner now threatens to topple the government there.
Even so, there are some strategic questions that need to be asked over the geopolitical strategy of the Trump administration after these events. The main question here should be: Is blocking Iran’s regional belligerence more important than preventing strategic nuclear threats?
As has been shown by its ballistic missile attack on 7 January, Iran already has the capability to mount accurate strikes. If they are allowed to develop nuclear weapons, when combined with its larger medium range missiles, it could soon have the capability to mount nuclear attacks on Northern European targets. A frightening thought.
As such, whatever the provocation, it would be wiser – at least for the time being – for the Trump administration to ignore Iran’s belligerence and the terrorist acts of its allies, and uphold the nuclear treaty that the world currently has with Iran. This will prevent Iran from restarting the isotope enrichment processes it needs to acquire nuclear weapons. This thus neutralises Iran’s nuclear threat leaving the USA and its allies to concentrate on more urgent nuclear threats first.
Actually it is North Korea where the more imminent nuclear missile danger lies.That nation could soon be able to fit nuclear weapons to US-reaching Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs).
If President Trump chooses to ignore the urgency of dealing with North Korea’s nuclear missile programme (surprising, since, by using a combination of threat and olive branch, he originally made great progress with the Kim regime), then he could be making the same prioritisation error that President George W Bush did when he was in power. He made the mistake of putting the Iraqi and Iranian nuclear threats ahead of North Korea’s, and thus, failed to stop latter’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. By the way, this column (then in the Ascend Space Intelligence News newsletter) warned that this was what was likely to happen. And as Mark Twain purportedly said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
In Summary: The Trump administration should should attend to the North Korea nuclear missile threat urgently while keeping the nuclear deal it has with Iran in place. Meanwhile, if at all possible, it should try and reduce tension with Iran.