Iran dumps Flight 752 investigator after he suggests Tehran kept airspace open to conceal 'imminent' attack
Investigator also heard pressuring family member to delete online posting critical of Iranian regime
A newly released audio recording suggests Iran's highest authorities allowed commercial airliners to fly in and out of Tehran during the period of intense military activity when Flight 752 was shot down — because closing the airspace would have given away the regime's plan to strike U.S. military bases in Iraq.
CBC News obtained a recording of a 91-minute conversation that took place March 7 between a victim's family member in Canada and Hassan Rezaeifar, who was appointed the head of Iran's investigation into the downing of the Kyiv-bound Ukraine International Airlines aircraft. The crash of Flight 752 killed 176 people, including 57 Canadians.
The recording, which reveals a number of damning details about the downing of the plane and Iran's response, is also in the custody of Canadian authorities.
Less than 24 hours after CBC News emailed Rezaeifar a copy of the recording and requested a response Thursday, news broke that he had been removed from his role overseeing Iran's investigation into the downing of Flight 752. Families in the United Kingdom — which has an embassy in Iran — were notified this morning that a new investigator is now in charge.
Airspace kept open to avoid signalling attack: Rezaeifar
In the recording, Rezaeifar said closing the airspace over Tehran could have exposed Iran's pending ballistic missile attack on U.S. air bases in Iraq in advance. That attack was retaliation for the United States' killing of Iran's top military leader, Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
"Some say we should have cleared the airspace," Rezaeifar said in Farsi on the recording. "The National Security Council is in charge.
"But let's say we had cleared the airspace. Wouldn't [it] give away our imminent attack?"
Flight 752 was shot down just four hours after the strike on the U.S. base. Rezaeifar added that closing the airspace could have meant cancelling flights. Iran earns hundreds of thousands of dollars daily in fees for allowing flights in its airspace.
"Ok, let's assume we had delayed the Ukrainian flight for ten hours. Wouldn't it have cancelled all other flights after?" said Rezaeifar on the call.
Thomas Juneau, an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and former analyst of Middle East affairs, said Iran has been insisting the investigation will be independent — and the audio recording proves it's not.
"Having the lead investigator saying those things on that phone call really damages that fiction," said Juneau. "By removing him, they're trying to protect that facade."
Passengers used as human shields, says expert
Payam Akhavan, a Canadian-Iranian international law professor at McGill University and former UN prosecutor at The Hague, also reviewed CBC's copy of the recording. Akhavan argues the audio is a new piece of evidence showing the highest levels of Iran's government chose to keep planes full of people in the sky on a day of intense military activity.
"The senior leadership of the government willingly and knowingly disregarded these risks," said Akhavan. "This is not just a question of human error or mistake. It's a question of criminal recklessness.
"To knowingly put civilian aircraft in harm's way, to use civilian airliners in effect as human shields, clearly implicates criminal responsibility."
Crash investigator in immediate contact with military
Akhavan also said the audio implicates the investigation team in a cover-up.
In the recording, Rezaeifar — who was the head of the accident investigation board at the Iran Civil Aviation Organization at the time — says he picked up the phone five minutes after the plane crashed and was in immediate contact with Iran's military.
Rezaeifar said Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), admitted the military was ordered to shoot missiles due to national security concerns.
"I was informed at 6:30 a.m. and I called the IRGC at 6:35 a.m. and asked, 'Did you have a missile attack?'" Rezaeifar says in the recording. "Mr. Hajizadeh explained and said yes, and we had orders. He said there are some national security considerations in the country."
On January 11, Iran's military admitted it unintentionally shot down the plane and blamed human error, saying the military mistook the jetliner for a hostile target. That acknowledgement came after three days of denial and after satellite evidence showed that missiles had hit the aircraft.
Rezaeifar did not respond to CBC's request for a comment. His name is used throughout the audio recording and CBC News has copies of messages sent from his Instagram account setting up the phone call.
Victim's family member 'intimidated'
Javad Soleimani (no relation to Gen. Qasem Soleimani) was the Edmonton PhD student on the other end of the call with Rezaeifar. He said Rezaeifar pressured him to remove an Instagram post critical of the Iranian regime. Soleimani has been an outspoken critic of Tehran since his wife Elnaz Nabiy died in the crash.
In that Instagram post, Soleimani wrote Iranians won't forget about the crimes the regime has committed against its own people.
"Please delete it from your Instagram," Rezaeifar tells Soleimani on the call. "Do you agree that out of 83 million people of Iran, only 10 or 12 people have hurt you? Why should those other 82 million people be insulted by this post?"
He then asks Soleimani if he thinks the Canadian government is more "benevolent" toward him.
"Are you certain that the whole Canadian government is good and uncorrupt?" asked Rezaeifar.
Two days later, Soleimani said, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence contacted his family members in Iran to exert more pressure on them about his behaviour on social media.
"It's ridiculous," Soleimani told CBC News. "They just wanted to somehow threaten me to stop criticizing the regime on social media because I had many followers on Instagram.
"They tried to force me to be silent ... but honestly, I have nothing to lose. And I told him, I told him I have nothing to lose, so you cannot stop me by just threatening me by conversation over the phone."
'Inappropriate' for investigator to pressure family member
Juneau said it's "totally inappropriate" and "absurd" for the lead crash investigator to put pressure on a victim's family member in Canada. He also said it's not surprising.
"I did not expect the investigation to be independent and few serious analysts did," Juneau said. "This basically confirms it.
"It's not very smart. It's just not a good move."
He said the practice of the Islamic Republic is to exert psychological pressure, and often physical pressure, on anyone opposed to the regime, at home and abroad.
Juneau said he wants to know the extent of Rezaeifar's relationship with the IRGC and Iran's Ministry of Intelligence. He cautions the details of what Rezaeifar said on the recording might not be accurate, and might have been meant to exert pressure on Soleimani.
"Is it true?" said Juneau. "Is he boasting? Is he exaggerating some things to increase the level of intimidation towards family members? These are all questions that we don't know the answer to."
Syrine Khoury, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, sent a written statement to CBC saying "interference with Canadian citizens is totally unacceptable, very troubling and won't be tolerated.
"The government of Canada denounces any and all attempts to coerce or pressure Canadians, especially those suffering the loss of a loved one," she added. "The government of Canada encourages anyone who feels threatened, unsafe or vulnerable to contact local law enforcement authorities."
Ralph Goodale, Canada's special adviser to the Trudeau government on the Flight 752 file, said the phone call "constitutes outrageous behaviour."
"It's wrong on every count of procedure, propriety, appropriateness. It's simply completely wrong," he said.
He added the International Coordination and Response Group formed by Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom to support victims' families will be investigating Rezaeifar's "interesting and provocative" comments about keeping the airspace open to see if there's truth to the remarks.
Audio casts doubt on past reports
Hamed Esmaeilion, the interim spokesperson for the association representing the families of the Canadian victims, said the recording raises serious concerns about the two reports Iran's Civil Aviation Organization has already published about Flight 752. Esmaeilion lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera in the destruction of Flight 752.
"I don't see any different between Rezaeifar and the new investigator," he said. "CAO is not independent. The whole organization is closely working with the IRGC."
Iran is expected to publish another report on the crash before heading to France on July 20 to download and analyze the plane's flight data recorders, according to a letter sent to victims' families in the U.K.