Why did Iran lie about shooting down the Ukrainian plane?

There are no true checks and balances within the Islamic Republic.

Forensic investigators work at the scene of a Ukrainian plane crash as bodies of victims are collected, in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airp
Forensic investigators work at the scene of a Ukrainian plane crash as bodies of victims are collected, in Shahedshahr, southwest of Tehran on January 8, 2020 [AP/Ebrahim Noroozi]

A cloud of lies surrounded the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 for three days. That the falsehood could never have been sustained under the magnifying glass of international scrutiny should have been clear from the get-go. What were they thinking?

Some aspects of this systematic dishonesty are unique to the Islamic Republic of Iran. But let us start with the more universal causes of governmental reticence and deception.

As a rule, all modern states tend to be secretive. Classifying even the most mundane information as “secret” is second nature to the bureaucratic state.

States lie and cheat and justify all in the name of a higher purpose: raison d’etat (national interest).

Occasional use of state-sponsored misinformation has a long history. In 1219, for example, the Mongols forged letters from commanders close to the powerful Khawarizmian Queen Mother Terken Khatun, claiming they had her blessing to serve the Mongol leader Genghis Khan. The letters undermined the power of her son, Ala al-Din Mohammed, and his ability to resist the invading Mongol forces.

In 1898, at the dawn of yellow journalism, William Randal Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, dressed up what was likely an accidental explosion on board the battleship USS Maine as “Spanish treachery” and offered a $50,000 reward for actionable intelligence on the perpetrator. The war party kindled the Spanish-American war of 1898 with that spark.

Sixty-six years later a similar yarn of dastardly attack on another American battleship, USS Maddox, at the Gulf of Tonkin was to ignite the flames of the Vietnam War. More recently, the neoconservative members of George W Bush’s administration used a batch of doctored intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction to launch the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

So, the real question is not why modern states lie, but why do they not lie more often? The public has no effective means of ensuring the veracity of the stories their elites concoct. But democratic systems have produced a measure of transparency that curbs lying and corruption.

By dividing the ruling elites through the principle of separation of powers, healthy democracies control their proclivity to collude and deceive the public. Additionally, a free press is set as a watchdog over the powerful elites. “The public has a right to know,” is not in the American constitution, but it might as well be.

Whistle-blowers are seen as heroes, not public enemies – even when a president wishes to make such an allegation. They are protected by laws and valorised in public for their commitment to truth.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran does the opposite. It is a unique blend of theocracy and democracy – and it is uniquely godawful when it comes to transparency. By covering the state under a sacred shroud of theocratic sanction, the system unifies, rather than divides its ruling elites. This makes a mockery of the separation of powers that is in the letter of the Iranian Constitution.

Every public employee from the highest ministers to the lowliest apparatchik in the system is encouraged to become a coconspirator in “hefz-e aberuoy-e nezam” (saving the face of the regime.) “Saving face”, however, is a concept appropriate only for preserving the honour of an individual or a social group such as a family. Safeguarding the reputation of an authoritarian modern state is a novel use of the concept.

Critics and whistle-blowers are criminalised and often face formal charges, such as “propaganda against the regime” and “collusion with enemies to defame the state” carrying punishments of respectively, one and five years of imprisonment.

I know, because I have been charged and tried under these provisions.

The absence of a free press and a dearth of whistle-blowers hermetically seals all the chinks in the regime’s armour of deceit and secrecy. There is no way truth can leak out of such a closed system.

The only way it gets out is by a massive implosion. And that is what has happened since it was revealed that an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operator shot down the Ukrainian aeroplane over Tehran on January 8, 2020.

This time, the implosion has led to an explosion of public rage. Increasingly determined protesters are calling the game. These demonstrations are not about the price of eggs or petrol. They are denouncing the dishonesty of the so-called “nezam-e moghaddass” (the holy regime).

In the past, implosions were stage-managed. Back in 1985, Iranian and American regimes were publicly reviling each other with terms like “barbarians” on one side, and “Great Satan” on the other. In the meantime, they were engaged in a cloak and dagger “arms-for-hostages” deal.

The nefarious affair was exposed in 1986 by a disgruntled clerical insider, Mehdi Hashemi. In the US, those engaged in this illegal affair, run out of a White House basement, were seen as violators of the law and betrayers of public trust.

The masterminds of the infamous Iran-Contra Affair were tried or otherwise shamed, and fired. In contrast, nothing happened to the Iranian parties to the operation – although Article 77 of the Iranian Constitution also forbids secret diplomacy.

The only one who was punished was the whistle-blower. Subjected to harsh interrogation and forced to appear on a show trial, Mehdi Hashemi was executed in 1987 on a number of charges including murder and sedition. Shocked by the revelations, a few parliamentarians objected to the scandal, only to be silenced by Ayatollah Khomeini’s harsh rebuke for harming the sacred unity of the regime.

Sacralising the state as a providential entity is the most important reason for its opacity. Lacking in internal checks and balances and protected from external critique by a free press, the system has gone dark, not only for the external world but even within itself.

That is why the reforms of the Soviet Union had to start with glasnost: transparency.

Two days after the downing of the Ukrainian airliner, President Hassan Rouhani and his government were still vehemently denying that it had been shot down by an Iranian missile. on the morning of January 11, he issued a fresh statement, reversing his earlier declarations about the incidence: “With regret and sorrow, a few hours ago … I learned …”

He asserts that as the elected and duly appointed president of the country he was kept in the dark for three days about a calamity of this magnitude.

This is not an excuse. It is an indictment.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.