After maintaining for days that there was no evidence that one of its missiles had struck a Boeing 737-800 minutes after it took off from Tehran on Wednesday with 176 people on board, Iran admitted early on Saturday that its military had shot down the passenger jet by mistake.
The military blamed human error. In a statement, it said Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 had taken a sharp, unexpected turn that brought it near a sensitive military base. Hours later, though, an Iranian official walked back that claim.
“The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly,” Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ airspace unit, said during a televised news conference later Saturday. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.”
In a post on Twitter, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, apologized but appeared to also blame American “adventurism” for the tragedy, writing: “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”
President Hassan Rouhani said on Twitter that Iran “deeply regrets this disastrous mistake.”
In a statement cited by the semiofficial Fars News Agency, the president offered condolences to the victims’ families and said that “the terrible catastrophe should be thoroughly investigated” and those responsible would be prosecuted.
But facing the possibility of American military strikes on Iran on Wednesday, Mr. Rouhani added, the armed forces made a “human mistake.”
“This painful incident is not something we can easily overcome,” he added, saying that was imperative to correct shortcomings in the country’s defense mechanisms.
Iranians vented fury toward their government after Tehran’s admission, with thousands pouring into main squares around the city Saturday afternoon. Gatherings organized on social media to mourn the victims of the crash swiftly turned into angry protests against the government’s actions.
“Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” people chanted, according to videos posted on social media. “You have no shame,” shouted several young men, as the crowd joined in a chorus, another video showed.
The country’s elite security force was not spared. At universities, crowds called the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps “incompetent” and “the people’s shame.”
But as protests spread throughout the capital and to other cities, the public’s anger seemed to find a one clear target: Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader and its commander in chief.
In Tehran, video posted to social media showed, protesters demanded that Mr. Khamenei resign, thrusting their fists in the air and screaming: “Khamenei is a murderer! His regime is obsolete!”
The protests turned violent in Tehran with anti-riot police using tear gas and opening water cannons at the crowd, videos showed.
Even conservatives and supporters of the government accused the authorities on social media of initially misleading the public about what had brought down the plane, whose passengers included many young Iranians on their way to Canada for graduate study.
The semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, posted a harsh commentary condemning Iran’s leaders, saying “their shortcomings have made this tragedy twice as bitter.”
“It is pivotal that those who were hiding the truth from the public for the past 72 hours be held accountable, we cannot let this go,” it read.
“Individuals, media, political and military officials who commented in the past 72 hours must be investigated. If they knew of the truth and were deliberately speaking falsehood or for any reason were trying to hide it, they must be prosecuted, no matter what post they hold.”
Siamak Ghaesmi, a Tehran-based economist, addressed the country’s leaders in an Instagram post: “I don’t know what to do with my rage and grief. I’m thinking of all the ‘human errors’ in these years that were never revealed because there was no international pressure. I’m thinking of the little trust left that was shattered. I’m thinking of the innocent lives lost because of confronting and being stubborn with the world. What have you done with us?”
Mohamad Saeed Ahadian, a conservative analyst in Iran, said on Twitter, “There are two major problems with the Ukrainian Airlines issue. One is firing at an airplane and two is firing at the public’s trust. The first can be justified, but the latter is a mistake with absolutely no justification.”
Some social media posts made use of the term “harsh revenge,” which Iran’s leaders had promised to inflict on the United States for the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Revolutionary Guards commander; an Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; and others as they left the airport in Baghdad. The general’s killing sent shock waves through the Middle East and led to calls for revenge in Iran, as well as a vote by Iraq’s Parliament to oust American troops from that country.
Mojtaba Fathi, an Iranian journalist, wrote on Twitter, “They were supposed to take their harsh revenge against America, not the people.”
The British ambassador to Iran was briefly detained by the authorities in Tehran as protests exploded across the country, a move denounced by Britain as a “flagrant violation of international law.”
The ambassador, Rob Macaire, was held for a few hours after being picked up during a demonstration at Amir Kabir University, one of the large protests sites in Tehran, according to Tasnim, an official Iranian news agency.
Tasnim said Mr. Macaire was detained for “involvement in provoking suspicious acts,” a claim that was immediately disputed by British officials.
“The arrest of our ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement. The Iranian government, he added, was at a crossroads.
“It can continue its march toward pariah status with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to de-escalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards,” Mr. Raab said.
The Iranian authorities plan to summon Mr. Macaire for questioning on Sunday, Tasnim reported.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine praised the 45-member Ukrainian investigative team that arrived in Iran this week for helping bring the circumstances of the disaster to light.
“Their high professionalism and promptness and the preliminary evidence they found in Tehran have not allowed the truth to be hidden,” Mr. Zelensky said in a video address on Saturday.
In the address, Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine had received important intelligence from the United States and Britain, but he called on the international community to be “persistent until all the circumstances of the crash are identified.”
He pledged that “the guilty will be punished” and that the bodies of Ukrainians killed in the crash would be returned promptly.
Earlier, in a Facebook posting, Mr. Zelensky said Kyiv would “insist on a full admission of guilt” from Iran. Mr. Zelensky had come under some domestic criticism this week for refusing to publicly blame Iran for the disaster even as the United States, Canada and Britain did.
The lead Ukrainian investigator said Iran had little choice but to allow his team access to the site because the International Civil Aviation Organization would have closed Iranian airspace if it had not.
“As we saw it, Iran had to face the reality that there’s no way they’ll get out of this,” he said.
But Mr. Danilov said Iranian authorities had complicated the investigation by scraping the wreckage into piles rather than photographing and mapping the coordinates. Over all, he said, they had acted “inappropriately.”
“When a catastrophe happens, everything is supposed to stay in its place.” Mr. Danilov said. “Every element is described, every element is photographed, every element is fixed in terms of its location and coordinates. To our great regret, this was not done.”
The Trump administration had for hours stayed relatively quiet about Iran’s admission and the tumultuous aftermath. But by Saturday afternoon, both President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had weighed in on Twitter.
“There cannot be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown,” Mr. Trump wrote, apparently referring to the deadly repression of protests in November. Though human rights issues have not typically been at the top of the administration’s agenda, Mr. Trump called on the Iranian authorities to allow rights groups to monitor the protests and report abuses.
For his part, Mr. Pompeo said that Iranians “are fed up with the regime’s lies, corruption, ineptitude and brutality.” He described the government led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “kleptocracy.”
“The voice of the Iranian people is clear,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Flight 752 followed the same departure route as other planes leaving on Wednesday, Igor Sosnovsky, the airline’s vice president for flight operations, told reporters on Saturday. “There was no deviation from any routes that some are hinting at,” he said.
Iranian officials initially said that the plane had taken an unexpected turn that brought it near a sensitive military base, but hours later a top official walked back that claim and said the plane was flying in a “normal” direction.
The airline presented maps showing the jet took a similar path out of the airport as other departures Wednesday morning — and the same path that Flight 752 had taken on dozens of previous departures from November to January.
Iran’s decision not to shut down its airspace on Wednesday morning, shortly after it struck American positions in Iraq, was “absolutely irresponsible,” Mr. Sosnovskiy said.
“When you act in war, then you act however you wish,” he said at a news conference. “But there must be protection around ordinary people. If they are shooting somewhere from somewhere, they are obliged to close the airport.”
Yevhen Dykhne, the airline’s president, said the Iranians had provided no information about possible risks before the plane’s takeoff.
A commander of the aerospace division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran, Amirali Hajizadeh, said on Saturday that he accepted responsibility for the plane’s downing minutes after takeoff in Tehran, according to Iranian state TV.
In a televised address, he gave more details about the sequence of events that he said had led to the disaster. He said it had been misidentified as a cruise missile, and was shot down with a short-range missile.
He also said that the Iranian missile operator had acted independently because of “jamming.”
“I wish I was dead,” Mr. Hajizadeh was quoted as saying by local news outlets. “I accept all responsibility for this incident.”
He said that whatever decision the Iranian authorities made, “I will accept with the arms open.”
The downing came hours after Iran had fired a barrage of missiles at two American air bases in neighboring Iraq, in retaliation for an American drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, an Iraqi militia leader and others in Baghdad.
Asked during his address why Iranian airspace was not shut to commercial air traffic amid the attacks, Mr. Hajizadeh had no clear answer.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said on Saturday that he was “furious” and “outraged” at the Iranian government.
“Canada will not rest until we get the accountability, justice and closure that the families deserve,” Mr. Trudeau said at a news conference. “Canada and the world still have many questions — questions that must be answered.”
He repeated his demand that Canada participate in the crash investigation with the “full cooperation of Iranian authorities.” Providing compensation to the families, Mr. Trudeau added, should be “part of the mix.”
Mr. Trudeau told President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in a phone call earlier in the day that the admission of responsibility was “an important step” but that much more needed to be done.
The crash killed 57 Canadians, including a number of students and faculty at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. More than 25 residents of Edmonton were on the plane.
In Canada, Iranians are comparative newcomers: Most arrived after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today, by some counts, Canada has the third-largest number of expatriate Iranians in the world and its universities are a top destination for Iranian graduate students.
Though Canada has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 2012, Mr. Trudeau spoke to President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on Saturday and said the Iranian leader promised to cooperate with Canadian investigators.
International pressure had been building on Iran to take responsibility. American and allied officials had said that all intelligence assessments indicated that surface-to-air missiles fired by Iranian military forces had shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.
Hours after the crash, Ukraine International Airlines officials had consistently ruled out pilot error or mechanical problems as the cause of the crash. They had said the Boeing 737-800, which was less than four years old, was helmed by some of the airline’s most experienced crew.
“We never thought for a second that our crew and our plane could have been the reason for this terrible, horrific aviation catastrophe,” the airline’s president, Yevhenii Dykhne, said in a Facebook post on Saturday after Iran’s admission. “These were our best young men and women. The best.”
The crew maintained normal radio contact with the tower in Tehran, airline officials said, and followed a standard departure procedure for the airport. After reaching an elevation of 6,000 feet, the pilots were instructed to make a slight northerly turn. In the last communication, he said, one pilot simply read back this instruction from the tower, saying, “Turn and climb.”
Addressing criticism that the airline should not have sent a plane to Iran at all, in light of tensions in the region, the officials said it was Iran’s responsibility to close airspace if it intended to fire missiles.
There was no immediate reaction from the United States to Iran’s admission, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been the first American official to publicly confirm the intelligence assessments.
“We do believe that it’s likely that the plane was shot down by an Iranian missile,” Mr. Pompeo said at a briefing at the White House announcing new sanctions against Iran on Friday.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran called his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Saturday to apologize for the downing of Flight 752.
Mr. Rouhani told Mr. Zelensky that errors made by the Iranian military led to the plane being shot down and that those responsible would be punished, according to Ukraine’s summary of the call.
Mr. Rouhani’s statement appeared to be the latest effort at damage control by Iran, whose military first claimed that the Ukrainian flight crew had made a sharp, unexpected turn toward a military base, only to retract that accusation a few hours later.
Mr. Zelensky, in a tweet after the phone call, described Iran’s acknowledgment of the missile strike as “a step in the right direction.” He told Mr. Rouhani that the bodies of the 11 Ukrainian victims needed to be identified and repatriated by Jan. 19.
“The acknowledgment of the ‘missile version’ of events as the cause of the catastrophe has opened the door to continuing the investigation without any delays or obstacles,” Mr. Zelensky said in a statement. “I expect further constructive cooperation with Iran in accordance with the norms of international law.”
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign relations committee in the Russian Senate, said Iran’s admission showed the downing of the plane had been a “tragic incident” and should not lead to further escalation between Iran and the West.
“It was a tragic incident; people cannot be returned,” Mr. Kosachev told the Interfax news agency. “The admission of error, although not immediate, and expression of condolences is sufficient to be accepted. With this, the incident should be closed.”
All sides should “learn lessons” from what happened, he said.
Mr. Kosachev also pushed back on reports that the missile used to strike the plane had been Russian-made. He did not deny the missile’s origin, but rejected any Russian responsibility for what had happened. “At the height of this tragedy,” he said, “it is absolutely immoral.”
American intelligence officials have said that a Russian-made missile system designated SA-15 by NATO and known in Russia as the Tor struck the civilian airliner shortly after takeoff.
The Tor system is a mobile missile launch system, with eight missiles carried on either a tracked vehicle or a truck. The vehicles can operate without relying on other air defense infrastructure.
They carry both a radar to detect targets and a launch system. The low- to medium-altitude missiles were developed by Soviet engineers in the 1970s as a so-called lower-tier air defense weapon.
A New York Times analysis of flight path information and video of the missile strike determined that the plane stopped transmitting its signal for between 20 seconds and 30 seconds before it was hit.
Civilian airplanes identify themselves with radio signals constantly streaming from a system known as a transponder on the planes, said Ian Petchenik, a spokesman for Flightradar 24, which tracks the signals for flights around the world.
The Tor software relied on radar and visual identification of a plane as well as the identification signals from the transponder, John Cox, an accident investigator and former pilot who is the chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, said. If the identification is incorrect or absent from the plane, Mr. Cox said, the system “will declare it a threat.”
From there, he said, the missile navigates via radar, “and when it gets in proximity to target it explodes,” releasing deadly fragments. A second missile is usually fired immediately after the first.
At that point, the plane, in flames, glided down to its demise.
Reporting was contributed by Farnaz Fassihi, Anton Troianovski, Ian Austen, Andrew E. Kramer, James Glanz, Malachy Browne, Christiaan Triebert, Ivan Nechepurenko and Edward Wong.