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Contrasting Claims On What Brought Down Ukrainian Jetliner In Iran


It's looking increasingly likely that an Iranian missile shot down the Ukrainian airliner that crashed after takeoff from Tehran this week. All 176 people on board died, many of them Canadian citizens. Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made this announcement today.


JUSTIN TRUDEAU: The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional.

SHAPIRO: The crash occurred early Wednesday morning, Iran time. NPR's Jackie Northam is following this fast-moving story, and she's here in the studio.

Hi, Jackie.


SHAPIRO: Trudeau's statement seems to be the clearest so far on what may have happened to the Ukrainian International Airlines flight. What more did he have to say?

NORTHAM: Trudeau says that intelligence from several sources, including Canada's own intelligence agency, indicate that the Ukrainian airline was brought down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile shortly after takeoff from Tehran's international airport. And he said that the strike may have been accidental. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson later echoed Trudeau's comments.

You know, Ari, all day long, we've been hearing reports from unnamed Pentagon and intelligence officials here in D.C. that Iran may have been brought - may have brought down the plane. And President Trump alluded to this earlier in the day. Let's have a listen.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Somebody could've made a mistake on the other side - could've made a mistake. It was flying in - not our system. No, it has nothing to do with us. It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood, and somebody could've made a mistake.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what's known about what exactly happened that night.

NORTHAM: Right. The plane crashed amid high tension in the region after Iran launched missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq. And that was in retaliation for the U.S. targeted killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani, and he was a senior Iranian military commander. A few hours after that incident, the Ukrainian airlines took off from Tehran Airport. And it reached about 8,000 feet and suddenly lost contact with ground control. And there were some pretty dramatic videos out there, Ari, showing this aircraft engulfed in flames and crashing near an amusement park. Aviation experts were skeptical that this was some sort of technical failure because this plane, this Boeing 737-800, is considered reliable, and this particular plane was only three years old.

SHAPIRO: Are the Iranians saying it was a technical failure? What is their version of this story?

NORTHAM: Right from the beginning, they came up very quickly - the Iranian authorities - and said the plane suffered a mechanical failure. And they have stuck to that explanation since. Our colleague Mary Louise Kelly interviewed Ali Rabiei, and he's a spokesman for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. She spoke with him today, and she asked him if there was a chance that Iran accidentally shot down the Ukrainian aircraft. And Rabiei told her that was impossible. He said that they have satellites, and they would've seen a missile hitting a plane.

SHAPIRO: I understand Ukrainian investigators are now in Iran helping with the investigation. Any idea how long it'll take to go through the debris and get a firm answer to the questions about what happened?

NORTHAM: Right. There are about 45 Ukrainians in Iran now to investigate what happened, and they'll work with their Iranian counterparts. This can be a painstaking process at the best of times, and it can only be more challenging now because it's in Iran. There are long-established protocols that should allow for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to help with that investigation because the plane was manufactured by Boeing here in the U.S. But the Iranian spokesman told Mary Louise today that Iran would not be giving the aircraft's black box to the U.S.


ALI RABIEI: (Speaking non-English language).

NORTHAM: He's saying here that Iran will not give the Americans the black box because they don't know what the U.S. is going to read into it. Prime Minister Trudeau said Iran has indicated Canada will be able to help in the investigation, but Canadians haven't got their visas yet. And Trudeau also said Iran had indicated that it would keep the black box.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam.

Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.