When you go to vet school, they teach you a simple principle: if you are under a bridge and you hear hooves, think of horses first, but don’t forget there are also zebras out there.
This is exactly what comes to my mind when I hear all the speculation about the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner by a IRGC SAM.
Let’s begin with a few horses:
Seems to me that the most logical assumption and assume human error, especially since the Iranian have already admitted full responsibility. Furthermore, there is no imaginable reason for the Iranian to have shot down this aircraft deliberately (did you know that most of the passengers were either Iranian nationals or of Iranian descent?).
Next, for the life of me I don’t see how Iran can be accused of trying to hide the truth when then admitted full responsibility even long before the investigation was concluded. Not only that, but HAD they wanted to hide the truth, it would have been extremely simple, really: they were in FULL control of a war zone. They could have ejected all civilians and claimed that the US had bombed the location to conceal its role, or something equally insipid. Instead, they first said “show us your evidence” and then they declared “we will show you OUR evidence which shows OUR guilt”. Compare that with what the US does when it shoots down and airliner (either when they admit it, like the Iran Air 665, or when they cover it up, like TWA 800 or Itavia Flight 870 or, even more crucially, all the CIVILIAN Soviet airliners shot down over Afghanistan by CIA run insurgents!).
As for the protests, they are simply yet another sign that, just as in Russia and the USA, Iran has a 5th column which is willing to make use of absolutely ANY pretext to try to overthrow the legal government. A gas explosion in downtown Tehran, or a train wreck, or even a local tornado – for these folks anything is just one more pretext to overthrown the Islamic Republic and hand their country over to Uncle Shmuel.
So what else is new? We see the exact same 5th columnist all over the globe.
As for Trump chiming in his admiration for the Iranian people, that is just a sign that the White House lacks serious Iran specialists, that’s all. As for the Idiot-in-Chief or the Malevolent Manatee – we already know that they are as ignorant as they are narcissistic. Again, nothing newsworthy here.
Lots of unanswered questions however.
Frankly, the story as presented by the Iranians makes no sense to me (not because I think that they are lying, but because there are a lot of information holes which need to be plugged). Why did the Iranian civil and military authorities not close down the Iranian airspace (which the US side, by the way, seemed to have done). Next, did the Iranian air defenses not get all the flight plans of all the aircraft in Iranian space? I had the privilege to participate in a few air defense exercises as a young man, and not only did we have full access to all the flight plans of any civilian aircraft over all of Europe, we even had their transponder signals live on our main displays. Was the Ukrainian transponder on? I strongly suspect that yes as a PIC cannot take off without this instrument in perfect working order (at least this was the case with European airlines in the 80s and 90s).
The commander of the SAM unit explained that he had 10 seconds to take a decision and that he got NO order from the higher instances (regimental, divisional, national air defense authorities). I don’t have any reason to doubt him, but if he indeed speaks the truth, then this shows a glaring weakness of the Iranian air defenses. Not only was his audio/video call for instructions not answered, the air defense networks were either down or frozen. HOW could that happen in a theoretically very redundant and highly survivable military network?!
Then there is the Ukrainian PIC. The logical thing for him to do would have been to contact his corporate bosses in Kiev and they might even have contacted the Ukrainian authorities. The question is WHO and WHY took the decision to take off when the situation was self-evidently fantastically dangerous.
Questions, questions and more questions indeed…
Now a look at zebras
Could a US drone have shot the airliner? Could the US have conducted a cyber-attack?
Maybe. But, as I often like to remind everybody, “possible” is very, very far form “likely”.
For example, what would be the US motive? I don’t see one.
Why choose a Ukrainian airliner? Again, this makes no sense to me.
Then, a cyberattack is all fine and dandy until we look into details.
Was the putative cyberattack directed at, hmmmmm what exactly?! The computers are radars of the civilian ATC? The IRGC air defense network? The specific SA-12 battery? Maybe the Ukrainian airliner? Maybe at all of these at the same time?
Yeah, maybe. But, as I think Carl Sagan, liked to say “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and in this case, there is ZERO evidence. Yes, tons of speculation, but speculation does not amount to evidence, not even indirect evidence.
So what are we hearing, horses or zebras?
Frankly, I would love to blame it all on the US or Israel but, alas, I don’t see even a shred of any real evidence supporting this hypothesis. Maybe we will see it in the next few days, weeks or months, and I will GLADLY admit that I was wrong. But, alas, the way I see it is that the most logical and likely explanation is a major, huge and most embarrassing SYSTEMIC problem in the Iranian air defenses.
This says ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about “the regime” or about “the Mollahs” or anything else. There have been quite a few civilians airliners shot down by mistake and even deliberately, and there will be more. To blame “the regime” for that monumental screw-up is simply illogical to the extreme. This kind of misguided logic makes someone always blame “the regime” when accidents happen in a country one does not approve off, but only blame “fate” or the “will of God” or even “Murphy’s Law” when (even HUGE) accidents happen in politically correct-countries. This is not only hopelessly partisan, this is also infantile.
However, it is also likely that there were MANY folks in the Iranian air defense which showed criminal recklessness and that these shall be punished, and not just easy fall-guys like the poor battery commander (who took the correct decision knowing and NOT knowing what he knew and did not know at the time, but higher up, on the level of both political and managerial responsibility: colonels and generals. Not “the regime” but SPECIFIC colonels and generals, yes.
As for the actions of “the regime” I find them almost ideally honest, open, speedy and honorable. In fact, almost too honorable. I understand that the IRGC is an elite organization which will demand that some of its leaders now “fall on their swords”, but I am actually concerned that the Iranian authorities are almost TOO willing to accept blame. I still think that there are waaaay too many unanswered questions and until we get clear answers, including to nitty-gritty “details” answers, we ought to wait before jumping to any conclusions.
Before I quit, let’s make one last comparison: let’s compare how neutral, democratic, noble, and otherwise putatively “civilized” SWITZERLAND acted when by the TOTAL fault of Swiss Air Traffic Control a Russian passenger jet and a US cargo jet crashed into each other over southern Germany. Look it up yourself, and watch the excellent movie made about the father of one of the victims.
If on that instance Switzerland truly scoped a shameful F- then Iran deserves a solid A+, at least in any objective comparison.