DUBAI, United Arab Emirates • Iran’s top diplomat acknowledged Wednesday that Iranians “were lied to” for days after the Islamic Republic accidentally shot down a Ukrainian jetliner. The admission came as new surveillance footage purported to show two surface-to-air missiles 20 seconds apart shred the airplane and kill all 176 people aboard.
The downing of the Ukraine International Airlines flight last week came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. over its unraveling nuclear deal.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for the first time Wednesday threatened Europe by warning its soldiers in the Mideast “could be in danger” over the crisis as Britain, France and Germany launched a measure that could see United Nations sanctions re-imposed on Tehran.
The crash — and subsequent days of Iranian denials that a missile had downed the airplane — has sparked angry protests in a country already on edge as its economy struggles under crushing American sanctions.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran reached a fever pitch two weeks ago with the American drone strike in Baghdad that killed the powerful Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The general had led Iranian proxy forces abroad, including those blame for deadly roadside bomb attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile strike targeting Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces early last Wednesday, just before Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard shot down the Ukrainian airliner taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Iran for days afterward insisted a technical fault downed the 3½-year-old Boeing 737-800.
It wasn’t until Western governments, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, went public with their suspicions the plane had been shot down that Iran admitted it fired on the plane.
Not admitting the plane had been shot down “was for the betterment of our country’s security, because if we had said this, our air defense system would have become crippled and our guys would have had doubted everything,” said Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard’s aerospace program, in television footage aired Wednesday.
Hajizadeh only days earlier apologized on state television and said: “I wish I were dead.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at a summit in New Delhi, became the first official to describe Iran’s earlier claims as a lie.
“In the last few nights, we’ve had people in the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the fact that they were lied to for a couple of days,” Zarif said.
Zarif went onto praise Iran’s military for being “brave enough to claim responsibility early on.”
However, he said that he and Rouhani only learned that a missile had down the flight on Friday, raising new questions over how much power Iran’s civilian government has in its Shiite theocracy.