Connecting the IRGC to the Shootdown of the Ukrainian Passenger Jet

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps
Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps / Getty Images
February 4, 2020

KIEV, Ukraine—On Jan. 8, Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, a Boeing 737-800 model passenger jet with slightly more than three years in service, crashed just outside of Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew members on board. It was the second major commercial aviation disaster connected to Ukraine involving an airliner shot down by a Russian-made air defense system.

One might suspect technological malfunctions led to the disasters. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and under the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran's military had been equipped with U.S. and other Western-manufactured weapon systems. The overthrow of the shah and Iran's subsequent takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran prompted an embargo of spare parts and support equipment for those U.S.-made systems. By the 1990s, Iran was forced to source weapon systems from Moscow.

PS752 was brought down by two 9M331 surface-to-air missiles from a Russian-designed Tor-M1 (NATO designator SA-15 Gauntlet) air defense battery. This version of the system entered service in the early 1990s, around the time Iran began purchasing weaponry from Russia.

"The transfer of sophisticated surface-to-air missile batteries to entities with less than sophisticated means of properly and safely operating them should simply be curtailed," a NATO intelligence officer told the Washington Free Beacon.

However, the officer added that "For all of the resources invested in the technology and procedural safeguards designed to prevent these disasters ... all of it is useless if the crews manning these batteries are not operating under competent command and control systems."

The investigation into how PS752 was shot down is still ongoing, but the blame will likely not fall on the use of a Russian-made weapon over an American one. Instead, fault will be found with the organization of the Iranian military itself.

The Tor-M1 battery that shot down the Ukrainian plane did not belong to the Iranian Armed Forces. It was an air defense unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has its own command structure and almost never conducts joint exercises with the Armed Forces.

The mission of the IRGC is not to defend Iran or its airspace. It is to protect the political leadership of Iran—specifically the clerical ruling order. "Preserving the gains of the revolution" is the euphemism the IRGC employs to describe its mission.

Today's IRGC resembles the Soviet Union's KGB, existing as a proverbial "state within a state." It aggressively recruits IT specialists to monitor social media platforms in Iran, deleting and blocking antigovernment sites. It is also heavily involved in numerous smuggling operations, managed through a network of front companies and trading firms that utilize commercial business operations as a cover. Iranian trading companies have been known to operate in the United Arab Emirates and other high-volume international shipping hubs.

The consequence is that Iran has "not one, but two militaries," as the NATO intelligence official put it. Moreover, the IRGC's influence outside of Iran and the income its smuggling operations bring in are deemed vital to the survival of the clerical regime.

The sprawling force was created at the birth of the Islamic Republic. At first a motley collection of ideological—sometimes fanatical—"true believers" of volunteers or irregular formations, the IRGC is today the most powerful entity in all of Iran. It holds near-monopoly control over entire sectors of the Iranian economy: oil and gas, telecommunications, construction, import-export, and transportation. Plus, it controls airports, seaports, and other vital infrastructure.

That control is one reason the Tor-M1 battery was placed so close to a commercial airport. But that airport had additional significance for the IRGC. Intelligence reports identify a nearby hangar stocked with "short-range missiles, mortar shells, anti-ship missiles, etc." The same intelligence assessments describe the facility as a hub for illegal arms shipments. Customers include the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and other militant formations across the Arab world.

The IRGC crew manning the Tor-M1 battery was unprepared to handle emergency scenarios. Sources in Ukraine who spoke to the Free Beacon stated they were familiar with the training program the Iranians received from the Russian missile system's suppliers. In their assessment, the IRGC crews were inexperienced, as their training program did not include enough preparation for scenarios that could take place in close proximity to a commercial air traffic hub.

Five days before PS752 was downed, a U.S. drone strike took out one of the IRGC's senior commanders, Major General Qassem Soleimani. The general had been responsible for conducting operations of the IRGC's expeditionary Quds Force in Iraq. When Iran counterattacked with rocket strikes on U.S. installations in Iraq, the Tor-M1 battery was put on alert. The IRGC anticipated a U.S. retaliatory strike against the arms smuggling depot.

This was when the IRGC's ability to act independently of the Iranian Armed Forces may have caused its first problem. Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh—commander of the IRGC's Aerospace Force—requested the airport shut down all commercial traffic during the alert. For unknown reasons, that request was not acted upon.

The IRGC's missile battery was now on alert, with commercial traffic still ongoing—but there was another problem. Most nations, according to a Ukrainian firm that spoke with the Free Beacon, "have a comprehensive air defense network that provides full coverage of their airspace. In addition to their own radars and command nodes, they will also receive a data feed from the civilian air traffic system—in order to give them a complete air data picture."

The IRGC did not have that complete picture. "In the case of this shootdown," the firm said, "this Tor battery appeared to not be plugged into or experienced in pulling data from the regular armed forces combined air picture, which means they were operating in a 'standalone' mode without the benefit of any accurate, real-time information."

Neither coordinating with the Armed Forces nor communicating with civilian air traffic, the Tor-M1 battery reportedly believed the Boeing 737 was an American attack drone or cruise missile. The missile crew attempted to contact the Ukrainian airliner to determine its identity—but only gave the flight crew 10 seconds to respond. They launched a missile, striking the aircraft. The missile took out the transponder designed to signal that it was a civilian aircraft. The crew then launched a second missile that shattered the plane's air frame. PS752 came apart in mid-air before it hit the ground.

Iranian authorities reportedly took some 30 military personnel deemed responsible for the shootdown into custody, but none have yet been punished. The IRGC commanders involved will undoubtedly assert that the consequences of not firing—had the Boeing actually been an American attack drone—were greater than those of taking down a commercial aircraft.

This makes the passengers and crew of PS752 one more set of casualties of the IRGC—the shadow army that calls the shots in Iran—and its internal culture that all too often causes it to act as though it answers to no one.

Published under: Iran