April 30, 2021 | Radio Farda

Flight 752 file and questions that remain unanswered

April 30, 2021 | Radio Farda

Flight 752 file and questions that remain unanswered

This interview has been translated from Farsi. 

In a recent report, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies referred to Ukraine’s response to the Islamic Republic’s “non-transparent” actions in connection with the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane.

The Washington-based foundation, which is a non-partisan research institute focusing on U.S. national security and foreign policy, said Ukraine is likely to refer the case of last year’s deadly flight, which was shot down by IRGC missiles, to the International Court of Justice.

In an interview with Dylan Gresik, a government relations analyst with FDD in Washington, DC, Farda inquired about the latest developments in the case of the PS752 downing.

Mr. Gresik, how do you see the developments in the Flight PS752 case?  

Yes, to set the scene: On January 8, 2020, in the early morning hours, Flight PS752 received clearance from both Iran’s civil and military aviation authorities. A few minutes after taking off, an IRGC air defense unit targeted and fired two surface-to-air missiles at the civilian aircraft.

One hundred and seventy-six people were killed. There have been many developments over the last 15 months.

More recently, in February, a UN human rights official published a letter she had sent to Iran in December 2020 which outlined what she found as human rights violations, as well as outstanding questions that remain to be answered.

Last month, in March, Iran released its final investigation report into PS752, which put forth the conclusion that was first revealed in its July 2020 preliminary report.

And then, of course, a week ago, last Tuesday, an Iranian military prosecutor announced the indictments of ten individuals in connection to the downing.

What was the international reaction to the report of the Islamic Republic? 

Yes, in mid-March, the Islamic Republic issued its report as mandated by standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is a UN body.

Iran’s official account claims the downing was the result of a series of human errors.

What is clear by all accounts is those who have carefully looked at these reports and followed the case — primarily officials from Ukraine and Canada, the families of course, as well as some UN officials — have pretty resolutely rejected the findings.

Canada’s foreign minister and transport minister issued a joint statement in which they said the report “appears incomplete and has no hard facts or evidence.”

And even Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, which is a technical agency, commented on the report and said it “does not explain any of the underlying factors” as to why the missiles were ever launched.

On the Ukrainian side, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister said the report was an “attempt to hide true causes of the downing.”

And of course, the families have come out very strongly against this report.

So those who have looked at it have pretty resolutely rejected Iran’s final report and have articulated a number of questions that remain to be answered.

You mentioned that the Islamic Republic recently announced the issuance of indictments for the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane. Who do you think has been arrested and what is known about these indictments? 

It is unclear who exactly was indicted. The authorities of the Islamic Republic have provided very few details about the indictments. Media reports have indicated that the outgoing military prosecutor in Tehran announced them.

However, the Islamic Republic has still not identified these individuals, clarified their involvement in the downing, or explained their position in chain of command.

Even further, the Islamic Republic has not explained which charges have been allegedly filed.

So just as people in Ukraine and Canada—those officials—have questioned Iran’s report, the reaction to these indictments has been to point out, in their opinion, that Iran has been lacking transparency in this regard as well. 

How should the international community view this recent announcement from Iran’s military prosecutor? 

While I can’t speak to the motivations of the timing of the announcement, I do think it is noteworthy that this news broke on the same day as negotiators arrived in Vienna to begin what has been called indirect or preliminary talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

However, I do think it is important to note here that Iran actually risks suffering a self-inflicted wound as a consequence of this perceived lack of transparency. Iranian officials have previously announced that the overflight fees, which is what foreign airliners pay Iran to utilize Iranian skies, have decreased in the last year pretty dramatically.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable that these foreign airlines will continue to potentially circumvent Iranian airspace if there are not visible reforms or further efforts to be transparent. And so there are a few different issues at play here. I would not be surprised that, unless the full causes of the downing come out, this risks further disincentivizing commercial aircraft from using Iranian airspace.

How have US officials engaged on this issue? The US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley has reportedly spoken with Ukrainian officials about the case. 

Yes. So it is unclear how much engagement is going on behind the scenes. However, as you noted, on March 24, there was a readout provided by Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which the Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister did speak with Robert Malley, the U.S. Special Envoy [for Iran].

In this conversation, they noted a few points of consideration, including that the United States will support Ukraine. So I think, by all accounts, the Canadians and Ukrainians have cooperated thus far. It remains to be seen how much the United States is—and going forward that will certainly be a point to be on the lookout of: how much the U.S. officials engage their international partners and allies on this issue in particular.

176 people were killed in the deadly tragedy of the downing of the Ukrainian flight. The families of those killed have been very active in seeking justice. What can and should be done to work toward true accountability in this case? 

The families have been very adamant on seeking answers, as well as the governments of Ukraine and Canada. And there are several opportunities to pursue meaningful policy here.

First, I do think the Robert Malley conversation is a starting point, but the Biden administration could publicly voice its support for Ukraine and Canada. Those governments have issued reports and statements and have signaled the policy direction they intend to go—which is under key international agreements including the Montreal Convention of 1971. And I would look for the Biden administration to publicly voice their support and make this issue a priority in their engagements with their Ukrainian and Canadian counterparts.

Second, the United States and its allies and partners could press the issue at the international level, including at the UN Security Council as well as the Human Rights Council. Canada’s representative to the Human Rights Council has previously made a statement about this issue. This is certainly an area that there could be further policy movement. The special rapporteur’s letter—this 45-page letter which outlined the international law relevant to this case—certainly provides a baseline for further steps within the UN system.

And lastly, Canadian officials, including very recently Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have criticized Iran for its continued lack of transparency and accountability. This follows a December 2020 report by the government of Canada that really significantly challenged Iran’s official account and handling of the case. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Canada continues to be in close cooperation with Ukraine and continues to advocate for this case going forward at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Looking forward, what are some developments we should expect in the case? 

There are two developments that I am keeping my eye on.

First is, again, Canada has formed a Forensic Examination and Assessment Team. Again, this follows a review of Iran’s report from their transportation safety board, as well as other areas of their government. However, this team is supposed to issue their own report in the coming weeks. I think this will go towards, hopefully, finding more details in the eyes of Canada, in the eyes of the families, and trying to uncover some of these answers that remain elusive.

Second, there is a process involved here under international agreements, one of which I had mentioned, the Montreal Convention. This is a complicated, long process; however, Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, Andriy Shevchenko, recently noted that his government is even closer to making a decision to initiate formal negotiations which then starts a process that could eventually lead to the International Court of Justice. This is a step that the families have endorsed. It’s a step that Canada will likely endorse and work with Ukraine [on]. So these are two developments that we may expect next.

Dylan Gresik is a government relations analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DylanGresik. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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