Passenger jet near-collision underscores safety concerns, failures in Iran

By Pakistan Forward and AFP

Members of ground staff stand beside a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) aircraft in Kabul last September 13. Two PIA planes almost collided in Iranian airspace July 24, according to PIA. [Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

Members of ground staff stand beside a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) aircraft in Kabul last September 13. Two PIA planes almost collided in Iranian airspace July 24, according to PIA. [Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

ISLAMABAD -- Two Pakistan passenger jets had a high altitude near-collision in Iranian airspace owing to human error by air traffic controllers, an airline official said Tuesday (July 26).

The close call happened on Sunday, when Iranian air traffic control (ATC) cleared Peshawar-bound PIA Flight PK-268 to descend from 36,000 feet to 20,000 feet, said Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).

Another PIA passenger liner -- PK-211 bound for Dubai -- was underneath cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet, and the planes came within 1,000 feet of each other, according to the state-owned carrier.

A cockpit "collision avoidance system helped the two pilots to correct the course and avoid a collision after the planes came close to each other", PIA spokesman Abdullah Hafeez Khan told AFP.

Remnants of downed Ukrainian plane seen on January 10, 2020. [IRNA]

Remnants of downed Ukrainian plane seen on January 10, 2020. [IRNA]

"We will write to the Iranian authorities to investigate the incident as the ATC should not have cleared the Peshawar-bound flight to descend," he said.

The Iranian Airline Association (IAA) has requested further information from both pilots and is investigating, IAA spokesman Mirakbar Razavi said in an interview published Wednesday.

However, one Iranian official rejected the Pakistani claim.

"Iran's airspace is the safest in the region," Hadi Youssef Pourazari, an adviser to Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, tweeted Tuesday.

Sanctions-hit Iran has suffered several air disasters in recent years, with officials complaining of difficulties in acquiring spare parts to keep its aging fleets in the air.

Tragic memories

The incident has dredged up memories of the 2020 disaster in which Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) accidentally shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 with two ground-to-air missiles, killing all 176 people onboard.

The Ukrainian airliner went down on January 8, 2020, just hours after Tehran launched missiles at US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing in Baghdad of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC's Quds Force.

Despite video and circumstantial evidence pointing to a surface-to-air missile hitting the airliner, Tehran continued for days to deny a missile strike took down Flight 752.

Three days after the plane was shot down, then-president Hassan Rouhani finally admitted that the IRGC shot down the plane.

That admission -- and the appearance of an attempted cover-up -- sparked days of anti-government protests in Iran.

Tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets shouting, "Death to the dictator" -- a reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- "Death to liars" and other anti-regime slogans.

Some student protesters also called the IRGC "incompetent" and "the people's shame".

More than a year later, in March 2021, Iran's Civil Aviation Organisation concluded in a final report that an operator "misidentified" Flight 752 and fired the missiles without authorisation from a commander.

However, an official Canadian report published in June 2021 held Iranian civilian and military authorities "fully responsible" for the tragedy.

The investigation found that an air-defence unit operator "likely acted on his own" to launch the missiles but also cited the "incompetence, recklessness and wanton disregard for human life" of Iranian officials.

Iranian anti-aircraft missile crews were on high alert, but authorities did not close the airspace or notify airlines at the time, according to the report, which also acknowledged a lack of access to the evidence, crash site and witnesses.

The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims said in its own report in November that high-ranking Iranian officials were responsible.

"At the highest levels of military alertness, the government of Iran used passenger flights as human shield against possible American attacks by deliberately not closing the airspace to civilian flights," the report said.

An audio file of an interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, leaked to media outlets on April 25, 2021, provided another blow to the regime's version of events.

Zarif said neither Rouhani, his cabinet members, or virtually anyone other than high-ranking IRGC officials, knew about the downing of Flight 752.

The day after the incident, he said, he was pressured to tweet about it and deny the IRGC had targeted it, but he refused to do so.

When he asked IRGC officials to let the Rouhani cabinet know the truth so they could perhaps find a solution, he added, they "glared at me as though I were blaspheming".

Misplaced priorities

Systemic failures and accidents in other areas in recent years also reflect Iran's failure to invest in its infrastructure or train its civil defence and security forces, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Instead of shoring up Iran's faltering economy and investing in critical infrastructure, the regime has chosen to spend its dwindling resources on the IRGC and its regional proxies, including Lebanese Hizbullah, Iraqi militias and the Houthis in Yemen.

Domestic discontent is growing inside Iran as its economy and the lives of ordinary citizens continue to suffer from the mismanagement and misplaced priorities of regime leaders.

This discontent is fuelled by the increasing evidence that top leaders, including Khamenei and his allies in the IRGC, have prioritised the regime's expansionist agenda abroad over the economic well-being of its citizens.

Half of the Iranian population lives below the poverty line, evidence suggests. Although publicly available data show Iran's overall unemployment rate is about 12%, the real number is much higher, with some observers saying as high as 50%.

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