Hundreds attend a candlelight vigil at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto, Ontario, on January 09, 2020, for the victims of the Ukrainian International Airlines flight shot down in Iran. Photo: AFP/Creative Touch Imaging Ltd/NurPhoto

As the first anniversary of the fatal downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps approaches, the Iranian and Canadian governments are not even close to settling their differences on the tragedy, with Ottawa even suggesting it may pursue justice at the International Court of Justice (ICC) at The Hague.

Canada lost 55 citizens and 30 permanent residents when the IRGC, according to Iran’s official account, misidentified a Ukrainian passenger aircraft as a cruise missile flying over Tehran and downed it with two Tor M-1 missiles shortly after takeoff in the morning on January 8, 2020.

All 176 passengers on the plane from six nations were killed.

The Canadian government is now leading international investigations into the disaster and pressuring Iran for full reparations to the families of the victims and demanding a truthful explanation of why the plane was downed.

On December 15, Ralph Goodale, the Canadian prime minister’s special advisor for the country’s response to the incident, released a report detailing his government’s findings on the incident with recommendations and a pathway for how questions surrounding the mystery can be answered.

Some Canadian officials have implied that what happened in Iran’s skies cannot be explained as “human error,” as claimed by Iran. Goodale, a former minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, has acknowledged that the absence of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Ottawa has been a roadblock to truth and reconciliation.

Nearly eight years after the Canadian government unilaterally broke off diplomatic relations with Iran, in what was perceived by many Iranians and Canadians as a radical break, a thaw is not on the near-term horizon. 

Authorities in Ottawa, to the chagrin of the large community of Iranian-Canadians, have on multiple occasions dismissed Tehran’s calls for the reinstatement of diplomatic representation and the reopening of embassies in the two capitals.

Mohsen Baharvand, Iran’s deputy minister for international and legal affairs, meets with members of the Ukrainian delegation for talks on compensation for the families of victims of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crash, in Iran’s capital Tehran on October 19, 2020. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

On June 11, Mohsen Baharvand, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for International and Legal Affairs, had a phone conversation with Marta Morgan, Canada’s deputy foreign minister, to review progress made on the finalization of investigations into the downing of Flight 752.

The former used the opportunity to raise the need for Iran and Canada to restore consular services. Morgan reportedly shrugged off the Iranian career diplomat, telling him that the matter should be discussed at a later point.

Why the rupture?

In September 2012, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper unexpectedly severed diplomatic relations with Iran, citing Tehran’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s alleged human rights violations, its threats against Israel and its contempt for UN Security Council resolutions over its nuclear program.

John Baird, the foreign minister of Canada in the Harper administration, dubbed Iran as “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world” and ordered the closure of the Canadian Embassy in Tehran. He also ordered Iranian diplomats in Ottawa, all designated persona non grata, to leave the country in five days.

At that time, a majority of Canadians were in favor of their government suspending diplomatic engagement with Iran. An Angus Reid survey found in September 2012 that a whopping 72% of Canadians said they approved of the government’s decision to cut off ties with Iran. A stunning 81% said they had an “unfavorable opinion” of the country.

The diplomatic severance did not come out of the blue. Tensions between the two governments had been bubbling since 2003, when Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian journalist, died in a Tehran prison under enigmatic circumstances.

She was arrested after being noticed taking photos of student demonstrators outside an infamous Tehran prison.

Iranian authorities initially said she died of a stroke, while the Canadian side insisted that she was killed by torture that left her with severe abdominal bruising and a skull fracture.

Iranian journalists light candles for the Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer Zahra Kazemi, who died while under arrest in Tehran. Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri

Nineteen days after she was pronounced dead on July 11, 2003, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi admitted she had been killed. He told reporters that when the administration of President Mohammad Khatami was arm-twisted by the international community into launching an independent probe, that the Montreal-based photojournalist was killed and that “the murder was caused by brain hemorrhage due to a blow inflicted on her.”

Collision course

The poignant death of the 55-year-old Kazemi set Iran-Canada relations on a collision course. Canada withdrew its ambassador from Tehran, after the Iranian government refused to repatriate her body and entombed her in the Iranian city of Shiraz, her birthplace, against the will of her family and the Canadian government.

Canada also threatened to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran at the time.

Canadian authorities still sporadically bring up the case, censuring Iran for not administering justice and failing to hold those involved in the murder accountable. In July 2018, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders commemorated Kazemi, taking a dim view of the fact that a long time after she was killed in custody, the perpetrators were still unpunished.

Since 2003, Canada has spearheaded annual United Nations General Assembly resolutions decrying the human rights situation in Iran as a lead sponsor. In March 2012, Canada passed the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act (JVTA), enabling the seizure and sale of Iranian government assets and properties in Canada to compensate civil judgments brought to Canadian courts by victims of what is believed to be Iran-sponsored acts of terrorism.

It is reportedly one of the main sticking points blocking the normalization of Iran-Canada relations.

Current premier Justin Trudeau has distanced himself somewhat from the anti-Iran animus of Stephen Harper. Prior to the 2015 federal election, he made a campaign pledge to restore relations with Iran.

Five years after that commitment, however, no headway has been made and the Canadian media have described Trudeau’s vow on Iran as a broken promise. The sizeable community of Iranians in Canada is dismayed.

Broken promise

“Unfortunately, though Prime Minister Trudeau promised the Iranian-Canadian community that he would re-establish diplomatic relations between Iran and Canada before he was elected in 2015, in the five years since, Mr Trudeau has not followed through on this promise,” said Pouyan Tabasinejad, the vice-president of the Iranian Canadian Congress, a non-profit, non-partisan organization representing the interests of Iranian-Canadians.

“Here, there are a few reasons with perhaps the main one being the election of US President Donald Trump and the degree to which that administration was opposed to both the Iran nuclear deal and the ending of the isolation of Iranians generally,” he told Asia Times.

US President Donald Trump took a hard line against Iran. Image: Facebook

Tabasinejad argued the Trudeau government has been following the Trump administration’s lead on its Iran policy, which is why Iran and Canada continue to be at loggerheads.

“Though many observers have attempted to explain to Canadian officials that following Mr Trump in his controversial and divisive foreign policy was not the correct path, unfortunately, it seems the Trudeau government saw it more important to follow the Trump administration not only with respect to Iran, but many other issues,” he said.

He hopes that with the inauguration of the Joe Biden administration in January, which is expected to adopt a more moderate approach to Iran, Trudeau will also revise and rebalance his view on Tehran.

Dennis Horak, the last Canadian head of mission in Tehran who was a chargé d’affaires before the embassy was closed in 2012, however, does not agree that Iran-Canada relations are influenced by external factors, including the US government’s Iran agenda.

“Canada was never subject to US pressure or influence as a result of our ties with Iran. In fact, the Americans were glad to have us, and other key allies, in Tehran. It gave them a window into what was happening they otherwise would not have had,” Horak said in an interview with Asia Times.

“If relations between Iran and the US do improve, by whatever means – and I don’t believe any dramatic change is likely beyond a possible loosening of sanctions – there might be additional pressure within Canada, [including] the business community and the Iranian diaspora, but the decision will be taken on the basis of Canadian considerations and not what the US is or isn’t doing in Tehran,” he added.

Hurdles remain

Canada is one of the most sought-after destinations of immigration for Iranians. After the United States, Canada is the second most popular choice for Iranian students aspiring to study abroad. A 2016 census showed roughly 210,000 Iranians live in Canada, while other sources such as The Guardian put the figure as high as 400,000.

Horak, who also served as the Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, believes the reopening of embassies is important, not merely because they procure consular services, but because they proffer opportunities for interaction between the two nations.

“I do believe that it is important to restore links. Consular services are certainly an important driver, but I also think there is value in re-establishing links to facilitate a broader dialogue and improve mutual understanding,” Horak said.

“Diplomatic engagement, even between countries who widely disagree, is important. However, there would need to be assurances from the Iranian side, if Canada decides to reopen,” he added.

Yet many high hurdles remain to normalized ties. Canada continues to ask serious questions about Kavous Seyed-Emami, the Iranian-Canadian conservationist and academic running the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, who died while in captivity in Iran.

He was convicted of espionage and died in prison on February 9, 2018, a few weeks after he was arrested. Iran’s judiciary authorities say he committed suicide. His family and the Canadian government reject the account. Canada’s questions over his death, as with the downing of Flight 752, have remained unanswered.