Politics·Exclusive

Secret recording suggests Iranian official concedes truth about downing of Flight PS752 may never be revealed

The Canadian government and security agencies are reviewing an audio recording in which a man — identified by sources as Iran's foreign affairs minister — discusses the possibility that the destruction of Flight PS752 was an intentional act, CBC News has learned.

Former UN prosecutor calls the recording 'highly significant' new evidence

Secret recording says it’s possible Flight 752 may have been intentionally shot down

The National

4 months ago
2:49
CBC News has obtained a recording of a man sources have identified as Iran's foreign minister acknowledging that the downing of Flight 752 could have been intentional. The Canadian government and security agencies are reviewing the recording. 2:49

The Canadian government and security agencies are reviewing an audio recording in which a man — identified by sources as Iran's foreign affairs minister — discusses the possibility that the destruction of Flight PS752 was an intentional act, CBC News has learned.

The individual, identified by sources as Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, is heard saying on the recording that there are a "thousand possibilities" to explain the downing of the jet, including a deliberate attack involving two or three "infiltrators" — a scenario he said was "not at all unlikely."

He is also heard saying the truth will never be revealed by the highest levels of Iran's government and military.

"There are reasons that they will never be revealed," he says in Farsi. "They won't tell us, nor anyone else, because if they do it will open some doors into the defence systems of the country that will not be in the interest of the nation to publicly say."

On Jan. 8, 2020, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in the skies over Tehran with two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 176 people aboard, including 138 people with ties to Canada.

CBC News has listened to the recording of the private conversation, which took place in the months immediately following the destruction of Flight PS752. CBC had three people translate the recording from Farsi to English to capture nuances in the language.

Security officials are studying the recording: Goodale

The details of the conversation, and the identities of the others involved, are not being released publicly due to concerns for individuals' safety. CBC is not revealing the source of the recording in order to protect their identities.

Ralph Goodale, the prime minister's special adviser on the Flight PS752 file, said the government is aware of the recording. Canada's forensic examination and assessment team obtained a copy in November, he said.

Goodale said the audio file contains sensitive information and commenting publicly on its details could put lives at risk. 

He said the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment are evaluating the recording's authenticity. A CSE spokesperson would not offer comment on the recording, saying the agency "does not comment on intelligence operations."

"We're treating all the evidence and all the potential evidence with the seriousness and the gravity that it deserves," said Goodale.

"We understand in a very acute way the thirst among the families for the complete, plain, unvarnished truth and that's what we will do our very best to get for them."

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. He has been identified by sources as one of the voices in an audio recording shared with Canadian security agencies about the destruction of Flight PS752. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

'They could have been infiltrators'

Zarif is Iran's primary negotiator with the countries that lost citizens on Flight PS752, and is the voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the global stage.

Over the past year, Zarif has maintained the government's official claim that human error was to blame for the disaster. Shortly after the crash, Zarif said it was "brave" of the military to claim responsibility — but added military officials kept him and the president in the dark for days.

Iran originally denied any involvement in the aircraft's destruction. Three days after the crash, and in the face of mounting satellite evidence, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani admitted its military "unintentionally" shot down the plane. He blamed human error, saying the military mistook the jetliner for a hostile target in the aftermath of an American drone strike that killed a high-ranking Iranian military general in Iraq.

Former foreign affairs minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has said he does not believe the destruction of the plane can be blamed on human error.

Champagne says he doesn't believe Iran when it says Flight 752 was shot down as a result of human error

Power and Politics

6 months ago
2:00
Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne wouldn't say whether he believes Flight PS752 was shot down deliberately. 2:00

On the Farsi-language recording reviewed by CBC News, the individual identified as Zarif is heard suggesting the downing was accidental — but later says it's possible "infiltrators" intentionally shot down the plane.

"Even if you assume that it was an organized intentional act, they would never tell us or anyone else," says the individual. "There would have been two three people who did this. And it's not at all unlikely. They could have been infiltrators. There are a thousand possibilities. Maybe it was really because of the war and it was the radar."

The individual goes on to say that "these things are not going to be revealed easily" by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or those higher up in the government.

The IRGC is an elite wing of the country's military overseen by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader and commander-in-chief. The IRGC is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

In the recording, the man identified as Zarif points to Russia as an example of a country that was accused of involvement in shooting down a plane (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014) but never admitted to it.

Push to compensate victims' families

The individual also refers more than once during the recording to compensation as a means to close "the issue" and says Iran wants to compensate victims' families to prevent other countries from turning the disaster into "an international crime."

The individual says on the recording that while Iran would deliver the aircraft's flight recorders to France for analysis, the data recovered wouldn't show whether someone intentionally shot at the plane.

Despite international obligations stating the black boxes should be analyzed "without delay," Iran didn't move ahead with that process until six months after the crash. Goodale's official report on Flight PS752, released in December, said Canada still hadn't seen "full disclosure ... on all relevant evidence."

Iran proposed compensation of $150,000 for each of the victims' families, but Canada rejected that offer. Goodale said Iran doesn't have the right to offer compensation to victims' families unilaterally.

On Jan.8, 2020 an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 minutes after taking off in Tehran, Iran. Everyone onboard died. (Associated Press)

Recording is 'significant' evidence

Payam Akhavan, a former UN prosecutor and member of the permanent court of arbitration at The Hague, said the recording now in the hands of Canada's intelligence agencies is a "highly significant" piece of new evidence.

He said Zarif is not involved directly in military or intelligence operations, so the recording is not a "smoking gun" offering conclusive proof that the aircraft's destruction was intentional.

Zarif understands the inner workings of the IRGC and is a "highly influential and well-informed member of the highest level of the Iranian government," Akhavan said, adding the recording suggests Iran did not conduct a proper investigation.

"The fact that he would say in a conversation that it is not at all unlikely that the destruction of 752 could have been organized and intentional is highly significant," said Akhavan, who is also a senior fellow at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

"The fact that he sees that as a real possibility, I think, should make us pause and really consider whether there's not something far more diabolical at play."

'We do not want to see any scapegoats'

Ukraine's Ambassador to Canada Andriy Shevchenko told CBC News that this is the first time Ukraine has heard about this recording, although the RCMP has been helping Ukraine with its own criminal investigation. He said he wants Ukraine to study this information carefully.

"I think it's another reason for us not to accept anything smaller than the truth," Shevchenko said. "We do not want to see any scapegoats instead of real wrongdoers. We do not want to see the truth being hidden behind state secrecy. We want to get to the bottom of this."

When asked if he thinks the downing of the plane was intentional, Shevchenko wouldn't rule it out.

"At this stage, we cannot exclude any possibilities," he said. 

"I think we are still so far away from having a clear picture on what happened ... We obviously lack trust in our conversation with Iran. I think we have a feeling that Iran shares as little information as possible."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was criticized for his demeanour in photos and videos released by Iran in Feb. 2020 following a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. (Reuters TV)

Final report won't 'tell us who pushed the button'

Shevchenko said Ukraine has proposed to Canada several ways the two countries could legally exchange information and evidence about Flight PS752, but they haven't yet settled on a mechanism. He said this recording shows the two countries need to establish a "legally flawless channel" of communication.

"It's going to be very difficult to go ahead with the criminal investigation," he said. "So I think every piece of information like that is very important."

Ukraine has received the final report from Iran on its aviation safety investigation and has until the end of the month to provide feedback. It's still not clear when Iran will release the report publicly.

"I think we should all realize that this report can confirm that the plane was hit by a missile, but it's not going to tell us who pushed the button," Shevchenko said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke

Reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

With files from Kristen Everson

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