After initial denials of responsibility, having been confronted with mounting evidence, Iran finally acknowledged that it accidentally shot down the Ukrainian passenger jet earlier this week, killing all 176 people aboard.
Following the admission, Iranian protesters have demanded Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei step down. “Commander-in-chief [Khamenei] resign, resign,” chanted hundreds of people in front of Tehran's Amir Kabir University on Saturday. Speaking from Tehran, Dorsa Jabbari told Al Jazeera, “There is a lot of anger. Iranians are demanding justice and accountability. Many people including families of the victims are in shock. They do not understand why their government would have lied to them for this long.”
There is also a lot of anger in Russia, but for an entirely different reason. Yuri Shvytkin, deputy head of the State Duma’s Defense Committee, criticized the position of the Iranian authorities, who admitted their responsibility for shooting down the Ukrainian airliner.
Shvytkin told Russian radio station Moscow Speaks that the Iranians should have blamed the United States for the incident. He said, “It was a missile strike provoked by the United States, that is, Iran’s retaliatory actions were unintentional. It’s necessary to condemn both the actions of the United States and the actions of Iran regarding the downed plane. Within the framework of the events that took place, in the turmoil due to insufficient professional actions and hasty decisions regarding the guidance and launch of a missile, it is theoretically possible to allow this.”
Russian senator Alexei Pushkov echoed the same position, stating: “The United States carry their part of the responsibility for this tragedy,” arguing that America creates conditions leading to wars all over the world.
Pushkov also took a jab at Ukraine, claiming that whenever Ukraine calls Iran’s actions irresponsible, it should be reminded about not closing its airspace for the flight of the Malaysian Boeing MH17. The Russian senator disingenuously complained that Ukraine “is still not admitting its fault” for not closing the Ukrainian airspace, “which is the reason for the crash of the Malaysian Boeing.”
In reality, Russia—not Ukraine—was proven to be responsible for shooting down the passenger jet over Donbas, killing all 298 on board.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, graduate of the FSB Academy, who serves as the first Deputy Chair of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation, also laid the responsibility for the downing of the passenger airliner by Iran on the United States of America, blaming the U.S. for “staging a provocation that led to human casualties” that started with the killing of Qassem Soleimani.
Some American critics of the U.S. administration have made similar arguments, claiming the shoot-down was the result of an artificial crisis created by President Donald Trump. But the Russians went much, much further.
In the run-up to Iran’s admission, Russian propagandists were looking to absolve the Iranians of any responsibility. Various theories aired by Kremlin-controlled Russian state television ranged from technological issues to the possibility of a terrorist act. Russia’s Federal News Agency (RIA FAN) pushed the boundaries even further, promoting an outlandish conspiracy theory that an American drone shot down the passenger airliner.
RIA FAN is a known offshoot of the notorious Russian troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for U.S. election interference. RIA FAN continues to operate various media ventures targeting Americans.
After spreading a conspiracy theory that blamed the United States for the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet, RIA FAN proudly reported what could be considered the outcome of its successful influence operation: “Americans are convinced that the Boeing was shot down by the United States.” It’s also entirely possible that at least some of the comments allegedly posted by Americans and referenced in the article actually represent the work product of the St. Petersburg troll factory.
Before the Iranian government came clean about the tragedy, Kremlin propagandists laid the groundwork of plausible deniability for their allies. Appearing on news talk show 60 Minutes produced by Russian state TV channel Rossiya-24, Dmitry Abzalov, President of the “Center for Strategic Communications,” dismissed any possibility that Iranian missiles could have shot down the Ukrainian airliner. He claimed that if any missile launches took place that night, photos and videos of those strikes “would have already been shown on CNN and Fox News.” Abzalov claimed that any accusations against Iran were “nothing more than a provocation” by the United States and the Iranian government’s willingness to turn over the “black boxes” to the Ukrainian authorities represented further proof of Iran’s total innocence.
During the state TV show 60 Minutes, Russian military expert Igor Korotchenko claimed that allegations by the Ukrainian authorities that the Russian-made Tor missile system was used to target the jet were nothing more than “Russophobia” by the Ukrainian “scoundrels.”
Korotchenko is an editor-in-chief of the National Defense magazine, founder and director of the Center for the Analysis of the World Arms Trade and a Member of the Public Council under the Russian Ministry of Defense. He falsely claimed that Russian Tor systems “simply don’t exist near the [Tehran] airport.” “There were no Tor systems in the area of the catastrophe,” he claimed, asserting that statements pinning the blame on the Iranians using Russian Tor systems represented “info-wars” launched by the competitors of Russian arms dealers.
Korotchenko proceeded to accuse Ukraine—which lost 11 of its citizens in the downed airliner —of not being trustworthy, disingenuously complaining that it never admitted “to shooting down the Malaysian Boeing MH-17,”despite the overwhelming evidence proving Russia’s responsibility for that incident. He demanded that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky “punish and fire” his administration officials who alleged that the Ukrainian airliner was shot down by the Iranian military using Russian-made Tor systems—allegations that have now proved accurate.
Hosts and panelists of 60 Minutes breathlessly accused Ukraine of irresponsibly “spreading conspiracy theories.” Igor Morozov, Deputy Chair of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Science, Education and Culture, complained that allegations about Iran’s use of the Russian-made Tor missile systems to shoot down the Ukrainian airliner were merely fabrications, the result of “Russophobia” and ongoing “info-wars” against Russia.
Arguably, no one knows more about info-wars than the Kremlin, whose tactics often include the dissemination of outlandish conspiracy theories. The Iranian government seemingly caught Russian propagandists off-guard by opting finally to tell the truth.