Ukrainian plane crash: the anatomy of a cover-up

It happened less than 10 minutes after Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 left Tehran’s airport heading for Kiev on January 8, 2020. Two missiles – 30 seconds apart – hit the commercial jetliner destroying the aircraft and killing all 176 passengers and crew members on board.

This was initially believed to be a crash due to mechanical failure. However, in light of the tense, war-like atmosphere following Iran’s attack on an Iraqi military base housing US forces, there was speculation from the outset that the aircraft was downed by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) missiles. Theories on the IRGC’s complicity was not only advanced by Western intelligence agencies, but also by the general public; particularly members of the Iranian diaspora.

Many videos taken on mobile phones began to surface on social media within hours of the incident. Some of them clearly showed objects believed to be missiles colliding with the aircraft. One of the very first pieces of evidence supporting the destruction of the jetliner by missiles was provided by an Iranian-American social activist in Northern California, Ashkan Monfared.

Monfared posted on Twitter the image of an object that astoundingly resembled missile wreckage and added the following caption in Persian: “This piece was found in the area of the Ukrainian Airlines plane crash that had fallen in front of a house. Does an airplane have anything like this? Is it not the tip of a missile?” The image quickly went viral on social media.

Almost immediately after posting his tweet, Monfared was attacked by what appeared to be a wave of pro-regime Iranian bloggers on Twitter. They accused Monfared of spreading disinformation aiming to tarnish the image of the Islamic Republic. They also dismissed the image as a hoax.

Many of the accounts that attacked Monfared were based in the US or Canada and followed the approach of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based organization highly suspected to lobby for the Iranian regime. A seemingly coordinated effort was then made to completely silence Monfared on Twitter. Subsequently, less than 24 hours after his initial post, Monfared’s Twitter account was suspended.

Displaying an image of Monfared’s tweet, a known Iranian regime supporter based in Canada, Hossein Derakhshan, tweeted in Persian on January 9, “Almost concurrent with suspension of Ashkan Monfared’s account, which of course was due to dissemination of fake news, numerous [other] Iranian accounts linked to Saudi Arabia and Israel [were also suspended].”

DERAKHSHAN INSINUATED that Twitter accounts suggesting the regime’s complicity – or showing evidence of it – were Saudi or Israeli agents promulgating disinformation. His tweet raised the probability that a large, coordinated group of pro-regime individuals were reporting Monfared’s account to trigger Twitter’s suspension algorithm.

The campaign to silence Iranian dissidents seemed to have originated from within the highest echelons of power in Tehran. On January 9, Hesameddin Ashena, a senior advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, wrote a tweet effectively threatening Western-based journalists of Iranian descent to stay quiet about the tragedy. He wrote, “Warning! Persian-language media outlet personnel of Iranian origin are warned to refrain from participating in the psychological warfare over the Ukrainian aircraft and working with the enemies of Iran.”

Ashena’s warning seems to have resonated with pro-regime journalists. In spite of the growing evidence of foul play by the IRGC, pro-regime Persian and English-language media outlets remined silent, limiting their coverage to merely a plane crash due to technical malfunction.

Meanwhile, many more Twitter accounts that raised the possibility of the regime’s involvement were mysteriously shut down. The Twitter account of London-based British-Iranian attorney Daniel Rasteen was suspended after he wrote several tweets accusing the IRGC of shooting down the jetliner.

For three days, the regime kept the details of the crash concealed. Inspectors from Ukraine as well as other countries arrived in Tehran to begin investigating the incident. Among the wreckage, they found debris similar to the object displayed by Monfared. The regime eventually – and perhaps reluctantly – admitted that the plane was unintentionally shot down by IRGC air defense.

By this time, Monfared’s Twitter account had been reinstated. As soon as it became evident that the crash was not accidental, the same individuals who had attacked Monfared began blaming the Trump administration for the mishap. To this day, some regime apologists still claim that the initial campaign accusing the IRGC, before the militant group admitted to their role in the tragedy, was merely “anti-Iran” propaganda.

A recent New York Times article claimed the regime found itself compelled to tell the truth about the incident after President Rouhani threatened resignation. There is no evidence to substantiate this other than the author’s claim that she received that information from her sources inside Iran.

What did, however, force the regime to admit guilt was pressure from the international community, which was partly triggered by outpouring of visual evidence provided by Iranians inside the country and disseminated by people like Monfared. In an era where social media connects people from around the world, it is becoming increasingly difficult for totalitarian regimes and their henchmen to conceal their atrocities.

This article was originally published by Kaveh Taheri and Kamran Ayazi on Jerusalem Post in 2019.

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