Iranian Diplomacy | Kaveh L. Afrasiabi: There is increasing pressure inside Iran for a through investigation to ascertain whether the US conducted a cyber-attack that contributed to the crash of the Ukrainian flight PS752 on January 8. In light of the on-going popular uproar over the incident , President Hassan Rouhani has called on the judiciary to set up a separate court on this matter and both he and the foreign minister Javad Zarif have openly complained that they were initially misled about the revolutionary guards’ missile attack that brought down the airplane – as a result of “human error” according to the initial admission by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp).
A big question is why did the civilian airports remain open and conducted business as usual during an extremely tense “war-like” time period, given the IRGC’s claim that their requests to ground all civilian flights were rebuffed? This matter in itself reveals serious management incompetence and, perhaps, serious flaws in the military chain of command. But, an even bigger question is why this error happened, which irrespective of the answer casts lights on the limitations of Iran’s air defense system; the latter have simultaneously torpedoed the Guards’ ability to bask in the glory of precision-targeting two US military bases in Iraq in retaliation for US’ assassination of their revered commander, Ghasem Soleimani, notwithstanding the new US media reports of extensive damages at those based caused by Iran’s ballistic missiles – that belie President Trump’s claim of minimal damage.
The investigation should examine all possible scenarios including whether this error is attributable to an external cyber attack directed at the radars of the civilian ATC, the IRGC air defense network; the specific SA-12 battery, the Ukrainian Boeing 737, or all of the above.
Precedents exist. In June 2019, the US deployed a cyber-attack
against the computer systems that control Iran’s rocket and missile launchers. There are reports of subsequent US attacks that have struck Iranian military computers. The Russian military site avia-pro.net privileges the electronic warfare/cyber-attack hypothesis.
The IRGC’s Integrated Air Defenses – which were at the highest alert level – had information of incoming cruise missiles. If these Air Defenses had been hacked, and while Iran’s airspace was open, the US could have faked cruise missile launches – which hug the terrain and cannot be tracked on radar until the last moment – to provoke the IRGC into a fatal mistake.
The University of Tehran Cyberspace Lab seems to have reached a similar conclusion: “the role of human error has been ruled out [as it has been discovered that] deception operations were carried out on the air control and command systems.”
Cruise missiles always spoof themselves as airline traffic. That would explain why the US, knowing in advance an accident was nearly inevitable, issued a no fly ban over Iraq and Iran. This is not to mention the suspicions surrounding a footage of the missile attack showcased by the New York Times the day after the crash, apparently filmed by a videographer who appears to have pre-knowledge of an imminent incident in the sky. According to a US videographer who wishes to remain anonymous, “an amateur videographer would have shown some nervous reaction affecting the filming, but that is not the case here and whoever filmed it somehow zoomed in exactly the right spot in the sky to capture the impact.”
The US Navy is crammed with radar-spoofing electronic warfare (EW) that can fool radar systems with deceptively moving targets. Additionally, there were at least four F-35s flying near Iran’s borders. These F-35s could have spoofed a fake launch of a cruise missile that was broadcasting a beacon with the spoofed ICAO ID of the PS752 flight.
And why target this particular flight? There were no less than 10 departures from Tehran-IKA from midnight local time through the departure of PS752 at 6:12 A.M. All of them flew the exact same takeoff route, passing the military restricted area to the left, to the right and even above it.
The investigation would have to ascertain why the same missile battery that did not shoot at a plane taking off 30 minutes before ended up targeting the Ukrainian Boeing.
The IRGC, in its official admission that this was “human error”, has not even sketched how their Integrated Air Defenses attributed such an important role to an older standalone system with a dodgy radio communications link and a ten second trigger time. And once again, what about all those planes that took off safely?
The investigation should also track in close detail the surface to air missile that hit the Boeing. SAMs don’t hit the target; they destroy it by exploding close to it and tearing it apart by a shock wave.
Now there’s video documentation of not one missile launch but two. Military experts have noted the missiles seem much slower than expected for high performance SAMs. So they could be manpads.
And there’s an extra problem. Tor missiles are fired vertically
(and not nearly horizontally, like these ones) and then use vector rockets to adjust their direction. So the investigation could well ascertain that the 737 was hit by two manpads – and not a missile. This is a question of truth, with significant ramifications for the coming trial of the individuals responsible for firing the Iranian missiles that struck the plane, among other things, much as the truth may carry sunk costs with respect to the purely military equations.
In an environment of total information war, this tragedy inevitably would end up being used by the US against Iran. After all, the US controls the narrative. In the wake of its carefully calibrated, Sun Tzu response to the targeted assassination of Soleimani, Iran had the initiative, and enjoyed unlimited empathy from virtually the whole Global South.
Now Iran is on the defensive. This may have been a much nastier op, as this analysis (in German) proposes: a plot to save Boeing. What matters now is a thorough investigation to reveal what really happened: “human error” or human error induced by a cyber-attack? Without doubt, the answer to this question has serious political, diplomatic, and legal ramifications, for instance it can pave the way to mega law suits in the Canadian and European courts against not only the Islamic Republic of Iran but also the United States, blamed for its direct complicity in the air tragedy. Certainly, a finding of US cyber-attack contributing to the Iranian military error of firing at the airplane suspected of being an enemy missile would add more depth and poignancy to the Canadian Prime Minister’s blaming the Trump administration for being partially responsible for the tragedy due to its provocative escalations. It is now up to the Canadian and other international inspectors investigating the crash in Iran to fully determine if US’ responsibility was more than an indirect responsibility and amounted to a direct culpability?