Italy and other Canadian allies with a diplomatic presence in Iran are helping to provide consular support for the friends and family of the dozens of Canadians killed aboard a Ukraine International Airlines flight that crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran.
All 176 people on board died, including at least 63 Canadians.
Canada suspended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012 and the Italian embassy in Tehran has been representing Canadian interests in the country since then through an arrangement known as a protecting power.
At a news conference in Ottawa Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his condolences to the victims’ families and thanked Canada’s allies for their immediate help.
“We’ve had many countries step up to offer their support and assistance as we move forward, whether it’s Ukraine or countries like Australia, Italy, France to assist us in our consular work on the ground," he said.
The Prime Minister was asked whether he could categorically rule out the possibility that the plane was shot down.
“I cannot," he said. "It is too early to speculate. I would encourage people not to speculate. We are certainly aware that this is a terrible, terrible tragedy. Our focus today is on the many, many families who are grieving and our focus in the days and weeks to come will be on answering the questions that they have and that indeed we all have as to how this happened.”
Canada is seeking Iran’s approval to send a team of diplomats to Tehran and for Iranian officials to include members of Canada’s Transportation Safety Board as part of the investigation into the crash, including analyzing the plane’s black box flight recorder.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said satellite data showed the plane took off normally.
“[It was a] very standard departure. However, we lost contact with it, suggesting something very unusual happened, but we cannot speculate at this point. There are a number of possibilities,” he said.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, Andriy Shevchenko, said that while Iran will oversee the investigation into the crash, Kyiv will do whatever it can to ensure Canada can take part in the probe. He said Ukraine can also act as an on-the-ground connection for Canada in Iran, as it has an embassy in Tehran.
“We just want to make sure that Canada knows that it can count on us in this situation. We have our people on the ground and, if there is anything we can do to ease the pain and to help all of us get the answers to the questions, we would be happy to do that,” the ambassador said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Younes Zangiabadi, a board member with the Iranian Canadian Congress, knew nine people killed in the crash. He called on the Canadian government to send its own team of investigators to Iran to look into the crash. He said the government should also consider establishing a direct flight between Toronto and Tehran, so Iranian-Canadians are not forced to take multiple, unreliable flights between the two countries.
Mr. Zangiabadi said emergencies such as Wednesday’s plane crash underline the need for Canada to reopen its embassy in Tehran, saying it is absurd that Canadians in Iran are being told to contact the embassy in Turkey if they need consular help.
“You have the families who have lost their loved ones and have been asked to contact the Canadian embassy in Turkey? Like, what is this? This is outrageous,” he said.
“I really hope this is a wake-up call for the Canadian government to not only think about the politics of diplomatic relations but actually the demands and the needs of Iranian-Canadians.”
Retired diplomat John Mundy was Canada's most recent ambassador to Iran before he was expelled from the country in 2007. He said the former Canadian embassy used to have two consular staff whose jobs were to help Canadians in distress in Iran, but Ottawa has lost that on-the-ground capability since cutting off diplomatic relations. That kind of emergency consular response is likely run out of Ottawa now, he said.
“Foreign Affairs would probably, given the size of the disaster, set up a pretty well-resourced team in Ottawa that would work full-time on this until they’ve provided whatever assistance they can to the families of the Canadians who have died in this accident. It would work with the Italian government and the Italian embassy on the ground in Tehran to do that,” Mr. Mundy said.