A Ukrainian International Airline employee reacted during a briefing at Borispil international airport outside Kyiv on Wednesday.

Tuesday night’s breaking reports of Iranian missile attacks on two Iraqi bases where American troops are stationed had Americans gravely concerned about an escalation in tensions between the two nations. But although Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the strikes a “slap in the face” of the United States, it seems little damage and no loss of life occurred. As of this writing, both countries seem to have backed away from open hostilities.

The more startling news Tuesday was the crash of a Ukrainian airliner that had just taken off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport and was headed to Kyiv. Flight 752, flown by Ukraine International Airlines, appeared to burst into flames shortly after takeoff. All 176 men, women and children onboard perished. By the next morning, Iran’s state-run news agency was blaming an engine fire for the disaster, although the Iranian government hasn’t explained how that determination was made so quickly. According to The Wall Street Journal, local air traffic control officials say the pilots never contacted the tower about an emergency on board. Several news reports say the jet appears to have turned around and was headed back to the airport before crashing.

On Thursday, Ukrainian officials said its investigators wanted to search the crash site for debris that might have come from a Russian missile. U.S. officials are telling news sources that based on routinely collected satellite imagery, radar and electronic data, they now believe the Ukrainian airliner was erroneously shot down by the Iranian military with a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.

As of this writing, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization chief Ali Abedzadeh says that Iran will not turn the two recovered black boxes over to either Boeing or to the U.S.’s National Transportation Safety Board. Under International Civil Aviation Organization rules, of which Ukraine, Iran and the U.S. are all members, an investigation is normally led by the nation where the disaster occurred. However, Iran does not have the capabilities to analyze the contents of a flight recorder box, especially one that has been damaged.

Airline officials say the Boeing 737-800 passenger jet was less than 4 years old and had undergone a periodic maintenance check just two days earlier. They insist the aircraft was fully functional and its crew experienced and well-trained. Aviation experts say the pilots’ failure to communicate is troublesome and indicates whatever happened was unexpected and violent.

This latest crash of a Boeing 737 is another headache for the American aircraft manufacturer who has sprawling corporate offices in both Washington state and Virginia. But unlike the company’s now-grounded 737-MAX, its next generation 737-800 model is one of the world’s most reliable aircraft and has one of the industry’s lowest fatal crash rates.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced he was indefinitely suspending all flights to Tehran and has directed prosecutors to open criminal proceedings into the event. Those actions are understandable, especially in light of a tweet on Monday from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The president’s tweet warned: “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655 Never threaten the Iranian nation.” The cryptic message was issued in response to President Donald Trump’s Jan. 4 tweet threatening to destroy 52 Iranian targets. The “290” refers to the number of crew and passengers killed when the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988.

In his address to the nation Wednesday morning, Trump said Iran appears to be “standing down” after Tuesday’s missile strikes. Maybe. We’ll be watching the investigation closely. Boeing is a huge American company and the Ukraine is regarded as an American ally. The situation is very fluid and many questions remain. Was the tragic end to Flight 752 the result of engine malfunction, a terrible miscalculation — or Tehran turning its focus from hardened military targets to far more vulnerable civilian marks?

— Robin Beres

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