Iran shot down a commercial plane, killing all 176 crew and passengers, because it was spooked by “six F-35 US fighter jets” near its borders, Russia’s top diplomat told The Independent on Friday. 

“This information needs verification, but I’d like to emphasise the nervousness that always accompanies such situations,” Russia’s acting foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said during his annual press conference, in response to a question from this news site.

“It was a human mistake. Everyone understands that.”

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The long-serving minister agreed with Iran’s argument that the loss of life was the direct consequence of the US escalating hostilities between the nations when it assassinated Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. 

“This act went beyond the realm of international legal and simply human understandings,” he said. 

The US decision to take out Soleimani on 3 January was followed five days later by retaliatory missile attacks on American airbases in Iraq. 

At the time, when the plane was due to take to the skies early in the morning of 8 September, Tehran was on high-alert for a possible a secondary attack. Yet incredibly, local authorities made the fateful decision not to close civilian airspace. At 6.14 am, just two minutes after takeoff, the Ukrainian International Airlines plane stopped sending all data. 

It was clear even without the satellite intelligence that came later that a catastrophic incident had occurred. Iran insisted there had been a technical issue, but faulty engines — even those on fire — do not take out entire systems. Images of rocket debris and footage appearing to show a missile strike offered even clearer evidence of foul play. 

It took Iranian authorities almost four days to admit its anti-aircraft systems had mistook the plane, and shot it down in error.

And up until the U-turn on Friday morning, Moscow appeared to support the Iranian position. 

Speaking on 10 January, the morning after Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau confirmed US intelligence showed an Iranian missile strike, but before Tehran came clean, acting deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said he was “certain” there were “no grounds” to make “loud” statements. 

Mr Lavrov initially denied his foreign ministry had made any statement supporting the Iranian position. 

The Iranian admission seemed to then come as a surprise to Moscow, which has so far taken a very different approach in respect to its own missile problem. A significant body of evidence now links Russia to the BUK anti-aircraft system that brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the Donbass in July 2014. That strike resulted in the loss of nearly 300 lives. 

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The independent investigation team set up to look into the disaster concluded the missile system was delivered from a unit of the Russian army in Kursk. 

A whole range of Russian commentators have made obvious comparisons between the Iranian and Russian responses to their respective disasters. But the most interesting comments came from Margarita Simonyan, the uber-loyal editor of Kremlin-funded RT. She suggested the Iranian actions showed them to be “real men … unlike other countries … including [Russia].” 

Mr Lavrov fudged The Independent’s question as to whether he agreed with Ms Simonyan’s analysis, declining to accept Russian responsibility for MH17.

He also discounted the findings of the independent commission, as Russia “hadn’t been included in the investigation.”

Answers on Iran and MH17 were the highlights of the otherwise low-key press conference. Most of the set-piece event was used to deliver a pointed criticism of the west, and United States in particular, for “undermining international security.”  

Mr Lavrov said Moscow would act to mitigate future “escalation… wherever it came from.” He would not be drawn on the future about where Russia’s next focus might be. Quoting Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s aphorism-loving former prime minister, Mr Lavrov said it was “difficult” to make predictions — “especially when they concern the future.”

Mr Lavrov also answered speculation about his own future ahead of an impending governmental shakeup. The 70-year old is long rumoured to want out, but Mr Putin is understood to be reluctant to part with the vastly-experienced minister. 

“Three days ago, I was asked to continue to carry out my duties,” he said. “And I carry them out.” 

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