In the days after Canada learned that it was Iran that downed a Ukrainian airliner shortly after it took off from Tehran, the somber, measured, but outraged tone of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s public comments has struck the right chord, say foreign policy experts.
But with only a supporting role in the crash investigation and little diplomatic presence in Iran, questions persist over how Canada can find the truth behind the Jan. 8 downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by Iran, which led to the death of 176, including 57 Canadians on board.
Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and current vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said Canada should always have an interests-based foreign policy and Mr. Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) comments reflected those interests.
“You’ve got to always think of what is your overriding objective,” Mr. Robertson said, adding for Canada, it’s to get an investigation and justice for the victims.
“Anything you do, [you have to ask] is this going to help or is this going to hurt?”
Mr. Robertson said while there may be a short-term gain for condemning Iran, it won’t help get compensation for the victims.
He added that if Mr. Trudeau took a harder line with Iran, it could lead to Canada being shut out.
After a period of silence in the midst of rising tensions between Iran and U.S., Mr. Trudeau stepped in the public spotlight Jan. 8 following news of the plane crash and the firing of more than a dozen of missiles by Iran at military bases in Iraq where Canadian, American, and coalition soldiers are stationed. He followed that press conference with two more on Jan. 9 and 11.
Mr. Trudeau said on Jan. 11 that “shooting down a civilian aircraft is horrific” and “Iran must take full responsibility.”
He called Iran’s admittance of downing the aircraft an “important step towards providing answers for families” and added that more steps need to be taken.
“Canada will not rest until we get the accountability, justice and closure that the families deserve,” he said.
Kathy Fox, the head of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), told reporters in Ottawa on Jan. 13 that there are “early signs” that Iran is willing to grant Canada a “more active role” in its investigation of the crash, while stressing that Iran is leading the investigation.
Two TSB officials have obtained visas to investigate the crash site and wreckage in Tehran. A second TSB team is expected to be deployed once it’s determined where the download and analysis of the cockpit and voice recorders will be held
Former high-level diplomat Jeremy Kinsman said that Mr. Trudeau’s Jan. 8 comments of “genuine sorrow” and dealing with the situation as a tragedy opposed to being antagonistic had a “salutary effect” on the internal debate in Iran, contributing to the Iranian government’s decision to announce that they had shot down the Ukrainian airliner, which Tehran said was mistakingly downed by a surface-to-air missile. Initially, Iran denied responsibility for the plane crash.
“[Trudeau] said the right things. He said it the right way,” said Mr. Kinsman, who was on Mr. Trudeau’s foreign policy advisory council in the lead-up to the 2015 election.
“What I worry about is the Iranian government will identify a few, sort of, low-ranking people and try to get this over with,” said Mr. Shahrooz, a former senior policy adviser on human rights at Global Affairs. “What I would like to see the prime minister do is recognize whoever ordered this attack on the plane ought to be prosecuted no matter where they are up the chain.”
Iran announced that on Jan. 14 that it has made arrests of “some individuals” after a “extensive investigations,” according to an Associated Press report.
On Jan. 13, Mr. Trudeau participated in his first broadcast interview since the plane was downed, telling Global News that recent escalations in the region led to the plane’s downing.
“If there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families,” he said.
Mr. Shahrooz tweeted that Mr. Trudeau’s comments ruined his “good week.”
“The crash happened because the Iranians are both malevolent and incompetent,” Mr. Shahrooz told The Hill Times. “They struck the American bases at the time of their choosing, so they could have ground all the flights and they didn’t do so. … I don’t think it has much to do with escalating tensions. At the end of the day, the only regime that can be blamed for this is the Iranian one.”
U.S. House of Representative Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Jan. 14 that the United States has no blame for the downing of the Ukrainian plane.
Tories call for IRGC to be listed as terrorist entity, NDP wants Parliament to return early
In the fallout of the plane crash, the Conservative Party has been calling for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be listed as a terrorist entity.
The listing of the IRGC stems from a private member’s motion by Conservative MP Garnett Genuis (Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.) in 2018, which received the support of the Liberals at the time.
The call to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization was backed by Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith and the Council of Iranian Canadians on Jan. 13.
Mr. Kinsman said listing the IRGC would only serve to be antagonistic.
“The fact is, they are the army of the state,” Mr. Kinsman said. “I think that is just playing to the crowd.”
Jocelyn Coulon, a former policy adviser to then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion and author of Canada is Not Back: How Justin Trudeau is in Over His Head on Foreign Policy said in an email that listing the IRGC will do nothing and said Canada should be practical.
The Conservatives are also calling for Iran to compensate the victims of the crash, repatriate their remains, and hold those who are responsible for the downing of the aircraft accountable.
The Canadian government—and others who had Iranian dual citizens perish aboard Flight 752—will have to negotiate with Tehran regarding how and where the bodies of dual nationals can be buried, as Iran doesn’t recognize dual citizens, according to The Globe and Mail.
Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper said a change in Iran is needed in order “to see peace in the Middle East” at a conference in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the NDP has called for Parliament to be recalled before its scheduled resumption on Jan. 27 in order to address the situation as well as the status of the Canadian-led NATO training mission in Iraq.
Mr. Coulon said recalling Parliament would just serve as “political theatre” and do nothing to get the needed information and quicken the inquiry.
The former diplomats and Mr. Shahrooz said the situation is too important for it to become a political football.
Crash could provide opportunity to resume diplomatic relations with Iran, former diplomats say
Mr. Robertson said Canada should use the current situation to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran.
“Having a presence in Tehran should be one of the outcomes of this,” he said.
Canada has been without diplomatic relations with Iran since Mr. Harper closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran and booted Iran’s diplomats in Ottawa in 2012.
Then-candidate Trudeau pledged to restore diplomatic relations during the 2015 election campaign.
In addition to the TSB officials in Iran, Global Affairs has sent a Standing Rapid Deployment Team to provide consular services.
Mr. Trudeau has been in contact with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as has Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne (Saint-Maurice-Champlain, Que.) with Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Mr. Shahrooz said the current situation is an argument for why Canada cut off diplomatic ties in the first place.
“Diplomatic relations with them only emboldens them in some way,” he said. “I think restoring diplomatic relations with Iran should be viewed as some kind of reward and at the moment we have nothing to reward Iran for.”
Mr. Kinsman said the return of diplomatic relations isn’t a “seal of approval,” but rather it’s about communicating with another country.
“You simply have to have it,” he said, adding that an embassy opposed to an ambassador is crucial because it gives access to all ministries in a foreign country.
—with files from Beatrice Paez