EDITOR’S NOTE: On Jan. 10, the Canadian government updated the number of Canadians killed in the Jan. 8 Ukraine International Airlines crash in Iran from 63 to 57.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the evidence is clear enough to suggest the deadly plane crash in Iran early Wednesday morning was caused by a surface-to-air missile.
But when pressed by reporters for answers on whether that missile firing was intentional, he would not say.
“This is a very concerning situation. That’s why we want to know more,” Trudeau said from the National Press Theatre in Ottawa. “We recognize that this may have been done accidentally but that just makes it more important to clarify what happened.”
He also acknowledged there was not enough information available to rule out the possibility of an intentional strike.
“It’s really too early to draw any clear conclusions or rule out any possibilities.”
The uncertainty around all of those lingering questions is a big challenge though for the government, both in how it manages the demands for answers from Canadians as well as how it negotiates both its critical relations with the U.S. and its lack of formal ties with Iran, the country now in control of the black boxes.
“It makes it very difficult,” said Colin Robertson, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat.
“If the Iranians don’t want to cooperate … it’s going to be difficult and the government will be criticized. You can’t bring the people back but there’s going to be a lot of unhappiness and it’s really tough for a government.”
All 176 passengers on board the Ukrainian International Airlines flight died when the aircraft caught fire and crashed moments after takeoff in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Of those killed, 63 were Canadian and more than 80 were Iranian.
Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization is now overseeing the investigation into the cause of the crash but immediately refused to hand over the black boxes recovered from the crash site to Boeing, the American aviation firm that manufactured the downed aircraft.
Normally the country where the airline was registered and the manufacturer do get access to that data.
That refusal quickly prompted questions about whether the Iranian investigation would be full and credible but Iran has since said it needs help reading the data and could give the black boxes to France or Canada, both of which have expertise in dealing with the complex data that must be recovered.
Canada has no formal diplomatic relations with Iran — the former Conservative government severed ties in 2012 and the Liberals have not reversed that. As a result, Canada is represented in Iran by Italy, while Iran is represented in Canada by Switzerland.
But the tragedy has prompted rare direct communication between ministers from both countries and Trudeau said there has been “openness” from Iran to Canada’s requests to be involved in the investigation, though it’s not clear what the country’s role might be.
Trudeau said intelligence from Canadian sources and allies is “clear enough” for him to tell Canadians the cause of the crash is believed to be a missile strike, though he dodged questions about whether he considered this an “act of war” by Iran and whether he sees the Americans as responsible.
U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the targeted killing by drone strike of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week, which prompted Iran’s retaliatory firing of nearly two dozen ballistic missiles at bases housing coalition troops, including Canadians, in neighbouring Iraq.
It appears to have been shortly after those missile strikes that the plane crashed.
“Those are conversations and steps we will contemplate as we move forward if it doesn’t appear there is a credible and complete investigation,” Trudeau said when asked whether Canada could look at expanding sanctions or using other retaliatory measures against Iran.
“Anything in the range of responses would need to start from a clear understanding and confirmation of what happened.”
He also did not rule out the question of whether he views the crash as the fault of the Americans given the missile strikes were prompted by their targeted killing.
“I think that’s one of the many questions that people will be looking at and trying to find answers to,” he said.
Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs with the University of Ottawa and former senior advisor to Trudeau on foreign affairs, said he thinks questions about who is to blame are coming too soon given they can’t be fully answered without more evidence.
“I think Trudeau’s right not to be talking about blame or consequences just yet. It’s premature. It makes sense to go one step at a time and focus first on gathering more information,” said Paris.
“A critical question will be whether Iran permits independent outside investigators to examine all the evidence, including the aircraft debris, crash site and the black boxes.”
Despite the rare communications taking place between Canada and Iran, the crash may not lead to a return of diplomatic ties.
Trudeau was asked about that possibility by reporters and while he did not directly answer the question, he said Canada will continue trying to work with Iran to get answers on the cause of the crash.
Trudeau’s Liberals promised in 2015 to restore ties with Iran and reopen the embassy but have said little on the matter since.
“I think there are many reasons why Canada has significant issues with Iran and has for a number of years, but in this situation, it is clear that we are coming together in the wake of this terrible tragedy that has befallen Canadians, that has befallen many Iranian citizens as well,” he said.
“We can’t forget that the majority of victims on that airline were Iranian citizens and this is something that binds us together in our grief and I think the desire for answers for families that lost loved ones is fairly universal. We will be working together the best ways that we can around this tragedy.”
Philip MacKinnon, Canada’s former ambassador to Iran, told Global News on Wednesday he does not expect to see ties restored any time soon.
“I think that would have to be a much deeper discussion between the two before diplomatic relations are resumed,” he said.