The Current

Plane crash investigation could be Canada's chance to re-open diplomatic ties with Iran: former minister

How will politics affect the investigation into the plane crash in Iran? We discuss the issues which could hamper the search for answers, including Canada’s lack of an embassy in Tehran.

Canada’s embassy in Tehran was closed in 2012

Forensic investigators work at the scene of a Ukrainian plane crash as bodies of victims are collected, in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, on Wednesday. (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)
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A former federal minister says Canada should work together with Iran to investigate the plane crash that claimed 63 Canadian lives, as a step towards improving diplomatic relations between the two countries.

"I would hope that our involvement with the Iranians through this investigation will help to open the door, to the point where we can re-establish relations diplomatically," said Allan Rock, who served as justice minister, and later minister of health under Jean Chrétien.

That would allow Ottawa to "get somebody on the ground in Tehran, who is a Canadian representative," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Canada's embassy in Tehran was closed in 2012 by Stephen Harper's Conservative government, over concerns about human rights abuses committed by the Iranian regime.

Rock said he was "disappointed" by the move at the time.

"Merely having an embassy there and having their embassy here, does not mean that we approve of that government's policies," he said.

"It means that we recognize the importance of dialogue, notwithstanding our differences."

Flight PS752 crashed Wednesday, minutes after it took off from Tehran. All 176 people onboard were killed, including dozens of Canadian-Iranians en route back to Canada. 

The crash happened shortly after Iran launched a missile attack against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops.

The investigation into the cause of the crash is still in its initial stages, but Thursday afternoon, sources told CBC News that U.S. officials shared intelligence with Canada that the airliner was shot down by an Iranian missile.

Canadians families are also preoccupied by an impossible question, the same one being asked in many other countries. Why did that plane crash? The CBC's Katie Nicholson with some expert insights on the investigation. 2:26

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne spoke to Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif late Wednesday, and pushed for immediate access to the crash.

The Current requested an interview with Champagne, as well as Transport Minister Marc Garneau, but both declined.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that consular teams were being prepared to go to Iran. He added that Italy was offering support as an intermediary to Iran, and Australia, France and Ukraine had also offered assistance.

Lack of embassy could slow progress: former diplomat

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said he had no doubt those allies would be helpful. 

But "they'll have priorities too, and we would fall sort of second in that list," he warned.

Debris is seen from an Ukrainian plane which crashed as authorities work at the scene in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, on Wednesday. (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)

He also said that sending a consular team has limitations, because it takes time to get them there, and they won't have the network of contacts that an established ambassador would have.

"One of the key roles of an embassy is to act as a co-ordinator for Canadian interests," said Robertson, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

"And obviously, we've got significant Canadian interests because a number of Canadians that were killed in this crash."

Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was only in the air for two minutes before bursting into flames and crashing to the ground. The National’s Adrienne Arsenault looks at what happened before the crash and talks to an expert about how an investigation would play out. 6:14

Robertson agreed that re-establishing diplomatic relations would be beneficial, particularly for Canada's application for a seat on the UN security council.

"One of the things that Canada has over both Ireland and Norway, our two competitors, is that we're a G7 country," he told Galloway.

"We really do have worldwide reach." 

Robertson believes that "the whole point of diplomacy is to be there."

"We live in a very turbulent world, things are changing," he said.

"And if you want to play, you have to be there."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson, Howard Goldenthal and Idella Sturino.

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