On anniversary of downed Flight 752, it’s time to hold Iran accountable
In the early morning of Jan. 8, 2020, Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, following its flight route at the planned altitude and trajectory, departed Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. Minutes later, an operator with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired two surface-to-air missiles at the civilian aircraft, engulfing it in flames and downing it from the skies.
All 176 passengers and crew from six countries were killed — the lion’s share citizens, permanent residents, or others with ties to Canada. The dead included students on their way to college, newlyweds beginning their lives together, and even children under the age of 10. Over the last year, the families of the victims have faced intimidation, harassment, and threats from Tehran and its agents.
This week, on the first anniversary of this attack, the United States, Canada, Ukraine, and all countries concerned about Iran’s malign activities should act to hold Tehran accountable and to secure truth and justice for the families of the victims. Failure to do so risks sending a message to Iran that there are no consequences for its behavior.
Iranian officials initially denied responsibility for the attack. They began a coordinated cover-up, sending bulldozers to clear the crash site. Outraged Iranians who took to the streets were met with a violent response from police and regime forces, who fired live ammunition at the unarmed protesters. Even while knowing it was responsible for shooting down the civilian aircraft, only after indisputable video evidence surfaced did Iran admit fault — and then Tehran attributed it to “human error.” The regime continues to blame a handful of low-level operators, shielding from responsibility senior IRGC officials who ordered the attack.
A recent report by Ralph Goodale, special advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, undercuts Iran’s claims of human and technical error. The report recounts some of the dubious assertions in Iran’s narrative that Tehran says led to the downing: that the missile defense battery was misaligned by an “enormous directional error of 107 degrees,” that IRGC personnel lost all contact with the command center, and that operators “mistook a [130-foot] long commercial passenger jet taking off and ascending from east to west for some sort of threatening aircraft or missile coming in from west to east.”
In July 2020, Canadian press reported on an audio recording with stunning revelations from Iran’s then-lead investigator, Hassan Rezaeifer. In it, he revealed that Iran’s attempt to conceal its ballistic missile strikes against U.S. military forces in Iraq, which came in response to the U.S. killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, factored into the decision to keep the airspace over Tehran open. Rezaeifer also said that Gen. Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC aerospace forces, who is sanctioned by the United States, had orders to fire missiles for “national security considerations.”
The IRGC’s air defense unit fired the missiles that downed PS752, and the nature of Iran’s security infrastructure necessarily implicates the Guard and its leadership. The IRGC is Iran’s paramount military organization and dominates all key national security decision-making bodies. This includes the Supreme National Security Council, which Rezaeifer said on the audio recording, “is in charge.”
In response to Iran’s attack, the United States, Canada, and their allies must take several key steps.
First, when the Biden administration takes office, it should work with Canada and Ukraine to submit a dispute to the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). ICAO is the UN agency that develops global aviation standards and administers the Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the 1944 Chicago Convention. Elevating the dispute to the ICAO Council would lead to greater scrutiny of the regime’s known and suspected violations of the Chicago Convention and other ICAO standards and recommended practices, including Tehran’s sham investigation into PS752. A binding ICAO Council decision would compel the Islamic Republic to fulfill its treaty obligations or risk the suspension of its voting power at ICAO.
Second, Biden officials should work with Canada and Ukraine if their governments initiate negotiations and, if necessary, arbitration proceedings under the Montreal Convention of 1971, which criminalizes the use of violence against civilian aircraft. Enough evidence reportedly exists that points to criminal recklessness at the very least. As a party to the convention, the Islamic Republic is required to investigate and prosecute all offenders and accomplices, but so far has sought to ensure that the most senior officials avoid accountability.
When Joe Biden takes office, he should not allow the IRGC to escape with impunity for PS752.
Third, Prime Minister Trudeau should use this opportunity to act on a motion passed overwhelmingly by the House of Commons in 2018 calling on him to designate the IRGC as a terrorist entity. Sanctioning the IRGC would spur Ottawa to investigate the regime’s extensive network and assets in Canada, sending a forceful message to Tehran that Canada will not permit unfettered Guard activities on its soil. The designation may further aid the families of the victims in potential lawsuits against the Islamic Republic. The United States designated the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in April 2019.
Trudeau may be hesitating to take this step out of hope that he can improve relations with Tehran diplomatically. Yet a policy of engagement without using all available leverage is unlikely to achieve justice for the victims of PS752. Such a policy will only be read by the clerical regime as weakness and as a shameful sign that Canada is unwilling to stand up to Iran even in the face of the IRGC’s killing of innocents.
Finally, the United States should not allow the Islamic Republic to profit from overflight fees collected for use of its airspace until Tehran accepts full criminal responsibility for the downing of PS752. In the audio recording, Rezaeifer alluded to the fees as a factor in keeping the airspace open. On Dec. 22, 2020, Ukraine’s civil aviation organization extended a Notice to Airmen that prohibits all Ukrainian aircraft from entering Iranian airspace. U.S. policymakers should take note and encourage foreign governments to reduce or eliminate their airlines’ use of Iranian airspace. Simultaneously, modeled after similar legislation for oil revenues, the 117th Congress should consider requiring any overflight fees to be paid into an escrow account that will go to the families of those the regime killed on PS752.
Taking these steps will not only bring the PS752 families closer to justice but will also serve as a powerful deterrent when Iran again considers targeting innocent civilians. As Hamed Esmaeilion, whose wife, Parisa, and daughter, Reera, were killed on PS752, stated, “Truth is the ultimate destination for justice, closure, and hope for the future.”
Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Alireza Nader is a senior fellow and where Dylan Gresik is a government relations analyst. Follow them on Twitter @tobydersh, @AlirezaNader, and @DylanGresik. FDD is a non-partisan think tank focused on national security and foreign policy.