Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne held an unscheduled meeting Friday with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to discuss the Flight 752 disaster – a rare face-to-face discussion between senior officials of the two governments.
A statement from Global Affairs Canada said Mr. Champagne and Mr. Zarif discussed consular services for grieving families, as well as potential compensation, during a "lengthy meeting" in the Persian Gulf state of Oman.
All 176 people aboard the Ukraine International Airlines plane, including 57 Canadian citizens and 29 permanent residents, were killed when it was shot out of the sky by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile on the morning of Jan. 8.
“The Ministers discussed the necessity of full access to Iran for officials from Canada and other grieving nations to: provide consular services, assist in ensuring victim identification meets international standards and participate in a thorough and transparent investigation,” the statement from Global Affairs reads. “The Ministers also discussed the need for a transparent analysis of the black box data, to which Iran agreed. In addition, they discussed the duty Iran has towards the families of the victims – including compensation.”
Contact between the Canadian and Iranian governments has been scant in recent years. The two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations since 2012, when Canada closed its embassy in Tehran over unspecified security threats and expelled Iranian diplomats from Ottawa at the same time.
The Global Affairs statement says Mr. Zarif, who is seen as representing a reformist wing within the Iranian government – and who has pressed his country’s military to be more open and accountable about what happened – “conveyed his profound regret for this terrible tragedy.” Mr. Champagne updated Mr. Zarif about a meeting on Thursday in London of foreign ministers from the five countries that lost citizens in the disaster – Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom. That group pledged to find ways to hold Iran accountable.
The Iranian government, after denying any role in the downing of the plane for three days, now says it was a "terrible mistake." Iran had fired a barrage of ballistic missiles at U.S. military targets in neighbouring Iraq earlier the same morning, and its anti-aircraft defences were on a state of heightened alert for possible retaliation when the passenger plane took off from Tehran's airport.
Speaking before the Oman meeting, Abas Aslani, editor-in-chief of the Tehran-based Iran Front Page website, said Mr. Zarif might propose allowing Canada to open a consular office in Tehran to deal with the aftermath of the crash – perhaps in exchange for allowing Iran to open a similar office in Ottawa.
Delivering consular services to victims' families has been complicated by the fact Canada does not have an embassy in Iran. That has forced the team of 10 Canadian consular officials who arrived in Tehran this week, as well as two Transportation Safety Board investigators, to use the Italian embassy as their base.
“It can work both ways, because if you have consular services for Iranian-Canadians here [in Tehran], you need to have a consular mission there [in Ottawa] as well,” Mr. Aslani said in a telephone interview. Iran Front Page is an English-language news website licensed by the country’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
It's not known whether Mr. Zarif raised the idea in Oman, but Adam Austen, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, said before the meeting that a mutual opening of consulates was unlikely.
Iran's investigation into the disaster is being headed by the country's chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric who is sometimes mentioned as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Raisi is known as a hardliner who is accused of playing a leadership role in a 1988 massacre of 5,000 prisoners, an episode that Canada’s Parliament has recognized as a crime against humanity. He was part of a four-man commission, later dubbed the “death commission,” that oversaw the extrajudicial executions.
“Putting him in charge of the PS 752 investigation makes a mockery of justice. It confirms that the Iranian authorities cannot and will not conduct an impartial investigation," said Payam Akhavan, a former United Nations prosecutor who is now a professor of international law at McGill University. "Instead of leading an investigation he should be prosecuted for atrocities."
Earlier Friday, for the first time in eight years, Iran’s Supreme Leader addressed the country via Friday prayers, mixing a brief expression of regret over the downing of the passenger plane into a fiery speech urging Iranians to continue “resisting” the United States.
Mr. Khamenei called Iran’s Jan. 8 attack on U.S. military installations a “day of God” – revenge for the U.S. assassination of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani five days earlier. A dozen U.S. soldiers were reportedly wounded and treated for concussion-like symptoms when ballistic missiles stuck their base in western Iraq.
"The fact that Iran has the power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God," Mr. Khamenei told worshippers at Tehran's Grand Mosalla. A massive crowd came out to hear the sermon, filling the Grand Mosalla and spilling out into the surrounding streets. Supporters responded to the Supreme Leader's words with chants of "Death to America."
Mr. Khamenei said the downing of Flight 752 was “tragic,” but he warned Iranians who have taken to the streets to denounce the tragedy that they were giving hope to Iran’s enemies. Thousands of Iranians have participated in protests since the government finally admitted on Jan. 10 that the plane had been shot down. The demonstrations have drawn support on Twitter from U.S. President Donald Trump, who rattled the region with his decision to order the assassination of Gen. Soleimani.
"As much as we were sad about the crash, our enemy was happy about it," Mr. Khamenei said. "They thought they found an excuse to undermine the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and our armed forces and question the Islamic Republic."
He specifically criticized protesters who tore down funeral banners of Gen. Soleimani while expressing their anger over the plane crash.
“Are the few hundred people who disrespected posters of Iran’s honourable martyr Gen. Soleimani the people of Iran? Or are the millions who attended his funeral the Iranian people?”
Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said Mr. Khamenei’s decision to give the Friday sermon demonstrates how dramatic the past few weeks – from Gen. Soleimani’s assassination through the domestic protests over Flight 752 – have been for the Islamic Republic.
“Khamenei tends to speak only rarely at Friday prayers. He does so when he thinks there’s a crisis. He does so to try and create some unity, to make some sense of what has happened,” Ms. Vakil said. “The events of the past few weeks have been quite turbulent for Iran’s domestic political system. Specifically, the downing of the Ukrainian airliner has been devastating to a wide portion of the population.”
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