Efforts continue to try to determine the cause of a plane crash in Iran overnight that killed 176 people, including 63 Canadians and 82 Iranians.
But amid heightened political tensions between Iran and the United States, the Iranian transportation authority is refusing to hand over the black box from the crashed aircraft to either Boeing, the plane’s manufacturer, or any American authorities.
That’s raising questions about how the investigation into the cause of the deadly crash will proceed, with political and aviation experts urging Iran to be transparent and share any information about what happened with other countries capable of interpreting the black box data.
LISTEN: Aviation expert Jock Williams joins Danielle Smith to discuss the challenges in getting the black boxes from the Iranian government
“There’s no requirement for them to hand over the black boxes to the United States, but it would be handy if they would hand them over to some other country that has the necessary equipment to read the data,” said Jock Williams, a retired fighter pilot and aircraft accident investigator with Transport Canada.
“The Germans have it, the Americans have it, Canada has a wonderful capacity to read these things. So there are many other nations besides the United States, and you can understand the political situation with the United States and Iran is not good right now, but it doesn’t have to go to the United States.”
Black boxes are protected data recorders that log virtually all information about an aircraft during a flight.
They do this using a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder, and are designed to withstand crashes on land and at sea in order to be able to provide investigators with the necessary data to uncover the cause of a crash or accident.
But reading them isn’t as simple as just plugging in a thumb drive to a computer, as Reuters notes.
It takes specialized skill and equipment to strip away all the protective material, decode the raw data files and convert it into formats that can be used by investigators — and Williams noted not all countries have that equipment or skill.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Wednesday that Canada is one of a “handful of countries” with that expertise and that he is “confident” Canada will be able to have some part in the investigation.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau also noted that Italy is representing Canada to the Iranian government as the crash response and investigation unfolds, adding that Transport Canada and Global Affairs Canada have offered assistance to Ukraine and Iran.
He also added that the Transportation Safety Board is appointing an expert to review information released by Iran in the case and monitor the investigation.
According to Joseph Yeremian, former director of the Ontario Aerospace Council, black box data is normally shared with a specific set of stakeholders.
“They should share the technical information for the sake of people that are going to fly.”
Boeing, however, is an American aviation firm, and tensions between the U.S. and Iran are currently heightened.
U.S. President Donald Trump last week ordered the targeted killing by drone strike of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, who was widely viewed as the architect of Iran’s campaign to expand its influence across the Middle East.
Iran has called that killing an assassination and threatened violent retaliation.
On Tuesday, Iran launched nearly two dozen ballistic missiles at American military bases in Iraq in retaliation for the drone strike, with Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calling the move “proportionate measures in self-defence.”
The response from the Canadian government to the drone strike that killed Soleimani urged both sides to de-escalate the situation.
Canada does not have an embassy in Iran, having shuttered that in 2012 when the former Conservative government severed diplomatic ties with the regime.
Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto, said just because Canada does not have an embassy in Iran doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be able to get answers.
“It is not as if there’s no way of finding channels of communications. The question is whether the Iranians are willing to co-operate and what exactly do we seek in terms of co-operation,” he said, noting the timing of the crash makes it important for there to be transparency in determining the cause.
Article 26 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation does not dictate to whom the black box must be given in an investigation.
But it does say that “the state in which the aircraft is registered shall be given the opportunity to appoint observers to be present at the inquiry and the state holding the inquiry shall communicate the report and findings in the matter to that state.”
The Boeing 737-800 aircraft that crashed Tuesday night was flown by Ukraine International Airlines.
It took off but crashed after reaching an altitude of roughly 8,000 feet, according to flight-tracking data.
Ukrainian officials have launched an inquiry into the crash and are sending a team of investigators to Iran on Wednesday.
Garneau said on Wednesday that it’s too early to tell what went wrong with the aircraft.
The lack of clear information, though, could give rise to conspiracy theories, Braun warned, saying that’s another reason why it’s important for the black box data to be shared with another international partner.
Until the facts become clear, he said it’s vital not to jump to conclusions or assume the crash and the missile strikes are linked.
“I’m working on the assumption that so far there’s no indication of that,” he said.
“If the Iranians have nothing to hide, it makes no sense for them not to be transparent.”
Philip MacKinnon, Canada’s former ambassador to Iran, also stressed that while the crash comes at “very complicated timing,” there is no evidence to suggest it was anything but a tragic coincidence.
He also noted that it’s unlikely the crash will spur any renewal in diplomatic relations.
“I think that would have to be a much deeper discussion between the two before diplomatic relations are resumed,” he said.