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A Closer Look At The 72 Hours After A Ukrainian Airliner Was Shot Down In Iran


We're going to spend these next few minutes dissecting an extraordinary 72 hours in Iran. Those 72 hours span the time from when a Ukrainian airline crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran Airport to the moment that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the government to acknowledge the cause of the crash - that Iranian anti-aircraft missiles had shot it down.

Farnaz Fassihi covers Iran for The New York Times. She has pieced together a chronology of what happened based on documents and on interviews with Iranian officials, both current and former, including members of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards.

Farnaz Fassihi, welcome.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Start with the moment that a Revolutionary Guards officer was on duty. He spotted what he thought was an unidentified aircraft near Tehran's airport.

FASSIHI: It was the night that Iran had taken the extraordinary measure of launching ballistic missile attacks on a U.S. military base in Iraq, and all the forces in Iran had been placed on the highest level of alert, or at war status, expecting the U.S. to possibly retaliate and strike back on Iran. And near Tehran's international airport, there's a Revolutionary Guards military base - a very sensitive one. And the aerospace forces of the Revolutionary Guards dispatched a mobile surface-to-air defense unit to that area. The operator of that unit fired two missiles at a - what he thought was an unidentified flying object, and it turned out to be a passenger plane belonging to Ukrainian Airlines. The plane crashed, and 176 people died.

KELLY: Yeah. I want to just underscore something you're saying, because I was with my producer. I was in Iran reporting as these 72 hours unfolded. And the plane crash was not even the top story at first that day because, as you note, we woke up that same morning to the news that Iran had just retaliated for the killing of General Soleimani by firing these missiles at Iraqi military bases. And that seemed the more important story that everyone we were speaking to, interviewing in Tehran that day was focused on.

FASSIHI: It was a significant moment sort of in their standoff with the U.S. in 40 years. This was the first time that Iran carried out an attack on the United States itself from its own military base, from its soil, and then it declared it. And that morning, as you point out, we were all trying to figure out, first of all, are the U.S. and Iran going to war with one another? President Trump hadn't spoken yet. We were waiting to see whether there was going to be any retaliation. So it was a very tense day.

And then the news of this aircraft came. And while there was a lot of suspicions from the first day of whether this was shot down or not - but it wasn't really until the next day, Thursday, when Canada and the United States and other Western intelligence...

KELLY: Real questions started piling in.

FASSIHI: Right. Exactly.

KELLY: The Revolutionary Guard Corps knew immediately that this was human error, that they had fired these missiles. They covered it up. Why?

FASSIHI: Yes, they covered it up. They covered it up because they thought that the country couldn't handle another crisis coming out of November crisis, where there was a nationwide uprising and up to 600 people were killed. But also, as you pointed out, this was a moment the morning after Iran had attacked the United States. They wanted to not lose that sense of unity that had come in the aftermath of assassination of General Soleimani, where Iranians sort of rallied behind the flag and come out in millions for his funeral. You know, they didn't want to lose that. They knew that this tragedy would overshadow that.

But, of course, you know, public opinion at home, international uproar about what had happened really put a lot of pressure up on them. And by Friday, they realized that this cannot be contained.

KELLY: One of the fascinating threads that runs through your report is even as that investigation is unfolding within the Revolutionary Guards, they haven't briefed the president of Iran.

FASSIHI: I mean, it's truly remarkable that the top elected official in Iran, the president of a country, would be kept in the dark. You know, it's a significant event. A hundred and seventy-six people died. Many of them were Iranian citizens. The country was in shock. The world wanted answers. There were grieving families. Everybody was looking to Iran's government to see what's going on.

And for three days, the Guards withheld this information from the president. In fact, they were doing the opposite for 72 hours, as you know. You were there. They were going on TV. They were going everywhere, saying, this is absolutely false. This is the work of psychological warfare from the West. We did not shoot down a plane. So they were actually giving false information while they knew very well what they had done.

KELLY: As I mentioned, I was in Iran during these 72 hours. And one of the interviews we did was sitting down with a government spokesman, an adviser and spokesperson for President Rouhani. This is a man named Ali Rabiei. And I asked him point-blank, is it possible that Iran accidentally shot down this plane? And I'll play you how he answered.


ALI RABIEI: (Through interpreter) No, that's impossible. We are at a point that satellite images can read our plate numbers. So if there was a missile hitting a plane, the footage would've been available. Satellite footage would've been available.

KELLY: And he went on. He was adamant. He said, we are not trying to hide anything. He said, everything will become clear. This was just an accident. Farnaz Fassihi, describe what happened when Ali Rabiei learned the truth.

FASSIHI: Mr. Rabiei was distraught. On Friday afternoon, after the Revolutionary Guards commander informed President Rouhani, he has a meeting with senior members of his government, including his spokesperson, Mr. Rabiei, and tells them the truth. Mr. Rabiei was distraught. He called a very prominent reformist figure, Abbas Abdi, who described to me in an interview that Rabiei called him. He was crying. He was upset. He said, this whole thing was a lie. All of it was a lie. I have lost my honor. I have lost my dignity. And he just didn't know how he could really face the public again.

It has to be a really - a moment of reckoning as to, well, if they lied to us and we're the government, then, you know, what could the public expect?

KELLY: I mean, based on your reporting and understanding that Iran is a big country - more than 80 million people - there is going to be a huge range of views, do you think people will look back and point at this moment as the moment when something essential, something fundamental shifted in Iran?

FASSIHI: I believe so, Mary Louise. I've covered Iran for over 25 years, through many crises and different things, and I don't remember a single incident that has collectively traumatized Iranians the way this airplane tragedy did, because in every single passenger, Iranians, including myself - I'm Iranian American - we see ourselves. We see our family members. We see our friends, mothers, children. They were innocent people who went home to visit. They'd gone on a passenger plane to come back, and they were shot down, and then the government lied for three days. And this has really shaken everybody to the core.

And I think this is a real turning point in the relations, in the trust, particularly, of not just the opposition, not people who were not really with the government. As you mentioned, Iran is 80 million people. This regime does have a support base. But it has really also shaken their support base in a way that no other thing has.

KELLY: Farnaz Fassihi - her article for The New York Times is headlined "Anatomy Of A Lie: How Iran Covered Up The Downing Of An Airliner."

Thank you.

FASSIHI: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.