TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran on Friday denied Western allegations that one of its missiles downed a Ukrainian jetliner that crashed outside Tehran, and called on the United States and Canada to share any information they have on the crash, which killed all 176 people on board.
Western leaders said the plane appeared to have been unintentionally hit by a surface-to-air missile just hours after Iran launched around a dozen ballistic missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq to avenge the assassination of its top general in a drone attack last week.
"What is obvious for us, and what we can say with certainty, is that no missile hit the plane," Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran's national aviation department, told a press conference.
"If they are really sure, they should come and show their findings to the world" in accordance with international standards, he added.
However, a short video widely available on the internet appears to show a missile striking the plane.
Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the Iranian investigation team, said recovering data from the black box flight recorders could take more than a month and that the entire investigation could stretch into next year. He said Iran may request help from international experts if it is not able to extract the flight recordings.
The ballistic missile attack on the bases in Iraq caused no casualties, raising hopes that the standoff over the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani would end relatively peacefully, though Iran has sent mixed signals over whether its retaliation is complete.
If the United States or Canada were to present incontrovertible evidence that the plane was shot down by Iran, even if unintentionally, it could have a dramatic impact on public opinion in Iran.
The Iranian public rallied around the leadership after the killing of Soleimani last Friday, with hundreds of thousands joining the general’s funeral processions in several cities, in an unprecedented display of grief and unity.
But sentiments in Iran are still raw over the government’s crackdown on large-scale protests late last year sparked by an economic crisis exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. Several hundred protesters were killed in the clampdown.
Those fissures could quickly break open again if Iranian authorities are seen to be responsible for the deaths of 176 people, mainly Iranians or dual Iranian-Canadian citizens.
U.S., Canadian and British officials said Thursday it is "highly likely" that Iran shot down the Boeing 737 that crashed near Tehran late Tuesday. U.S. officials said the jetliner might have been mistakenly identified as a threat.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose country lost at least 63 citizens in the crash, said "we have intelligence from multiple sources including our allies and our own intelligence."
"The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile," he said.
The U.S. officials did not say what intelligence they had that pointed to an Iranian missile, believed to be fired by the Russian Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15. But they acknowledged the existence of satellites and other sensors in the region, as well as the likelihood of communication interceptions and similar intelligence.
Western countries may hesitate to share information on such a strike because it comes from highly classified sources.
Videos verified by The Associated Press appear to show the final seconds of the ill-fated airliner, which had just taken off from Iran early Wednesday.