The Trump administration suspects an Iranian missile caused the crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed all 176 people on board, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a news conference Friday, confirming earlier intelligence reports.
Also on Friday, Ukrainian officials gained access to the plane’s “black box” recorder, according to Iulia Mendel, spokeswoman for Ukraine’s president. Recovery of the black box, which records data from the flight and voices from the cockpit, is considered a key step in reconstructing the final moments of any air crash.
Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported that the box, made of hardened material capable of withstanding intense flame, explosions and impact, would be opened Friday. But the process of downloading the information could take up to two months.
An investigation into the cause of the crash is ongoing. If evidence shows that the Iranian missile did, in fact, take down the plane, then the U.S. “and the world will take appropriate actions in response,” Pompeo said.
“We do believe that it is likely that that plane was shot down by an Iranian missile. We’re going to let that investigation play out,” Pompeo said.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, speaking at the news conference, announced an array of new sanctions on Iran, including measures against eight senior administration officials. He also said the department will waive the sanctions for anyone who can help with the plane crash investigation, allowing investigators to participate in accordance with U.S. sanctions law.
The plane crashed Wednesday just hours after Iran fired ballistic missiles at two U.S. military based in Iraq. That assault came in retaliation for the Pentagon’s killing in a drone strike of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most senior and revered military commanders.
The Trump administration said Soleimani had been planning an “imminent” attack against U.S. citizens, but Pompeo on Friday faced several questions about the details of that alleged plot.
“This was gonna happen. And American lives were at risk, and we would have been culpably negligent … had we not recommended to the president that he take this action against Qasem Soleimani,” Pompeo said.
Reports also emerged Friday afternoon that the U.S. military had attempted to take out another senior Iranian commander on the same day it killed Soleimani. The failed attack, first reported by the Washington Post, had targeted Abdul Reza Shahlai, a high-ranking commander in Iran’s Islamic Republican Guard Corps, officials said.
Iran disputes claims that it shot down Ukranian plane
Iran has rejected any suggestion that the plane was brought down by one of its own missiles. The nation urged American and Canadian investigators Friday to share any information they have on the plane crash.
“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 in Tehran. “If they are really sure, they should come and show their findings to the world” in accordance with international standards, he added.
One of Iran’s most senior diplomats in Europe also disputed a suggestion from a journalist that the Ukraine International Airlines crash site outside Tehran had “no security,” “was not cordoned off” and that there was “no sign of any investigators.”
Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, told USA TODAY after a briefing with reporters that the claim wasn’t true. But CBS News’ senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer tweeted that the crash site was not being protected for investigators and that local “scavengers (were) now picking the site clean.”
Iran vehemently disputes shooting the plane down and said its initial findings indicated that the jet crashed as a result of a technical fault. Palmer, who is in Iran, was able to briefly visit the crash site Friday before being chased away by Iranian officials.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Friday that he has “no reason not to believe reports” that the plane “may have been downed” by an Iranian missile.
Ukrainian plane:Crash may be grim echo of US downing of Iran flight in 1988
Video has emerged online that appears to show a plane near Tehran being hit with a projectile of some kind, but no conclusive evidence has been released.
Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran and a senior policy adviser to Pompeo, said Iran should not do anything to impede the investigation into the crash.
“This needs to be open, transparent and comprehensive,” he told reporters during a conference call on Friday.
Baeidinejad said in the briefing that Iran was “fully committed to participating in an international investigation that meets the highest international standards.” He also cautioned that the issue “should avoid being politicized” because it was harmful to the friends and family members of those who died in the crash near Tehran’s airport.
Tehran and Washington are deeply suspicious of one another after decades of animosity and tensions, which have only increased since the Trump administration pulled out of a nuclear deal between Iran. Several world powers have reimposed economic sanctions.
NTSB may participate in investigation
Baeidinejad appeared to indicate in the briefing in London that American officials from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Bureau, would travel to Iran to participate in the crash investigation. However, there has been no independent confirmation from the NTSB, the U.S. State Department or the White House that such a move would take place.
Late Thursday, NTSB published a statement saying it had received “formal notification” about the crash from Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization and would be sending “an accredited representative to the investigation of the crash.”
The NTSB followed that up Friday, saying the “designation of an accredited representative is the first step toward that end. No decision has been made about travel and decisions are still being made about how the NTSB’s involvement may unfold.”
There has been no indication that this representative would be an American government employee. It would be a major step forward for U.S-Iran government-to-government contact if a U.S. official traveled to Iran. There are very few, if any, known instances of American government employees traveling to Iran since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. During that uprising, protesters in Tehran stormed the U.S. Embassy there and held 52 American diplomats and officials hostage for 444 days.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY