Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 35 seconds.
Fourteen months after its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 minutes after it took off from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, Iran continues to blame “human error.”
In a 145-page report by its Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB), Iran said March 17 that the deaths of 176 crew and passengers, including 80 with Canadian ties, was due to the Boeing 737-800 having been “identified by one of the air defense units as a threat and targeted consequently.”
The March 17 AAIB report states that the flight to Kyiv, where the Canadians would connect to flights home, had received clearance from air traffic control and the IRGC’s air defence coordination center. But it goes on to say that a missile unit’s radar system had not been realigned after the unit had changed position, and when the system identified PS752 as an “unknown” object, it was targeted as hostile and two missiles were fired in quick succession.
The IRGC was on high alert at the time, just hours after it had launched missiles into neighbouring Iraq against U.S. forces in retaliation for the killing of IRGC Gen Qasem Soleimani, in a U.S. drone strike five days earlier when he was visiting Baghdad. Soleimani commanded the elite Quds Force, an IRGC division linked with terrorist groups elsewhere in the Middle East.
The AAIB report effectively reflects the Iranian government’s claim that it was not a deliberate attack by the IRGC unit near the airport. After initially denying responsibility for three days despite many eyewitness reports of a missile attack, and only after video footage surfaced, Iran eventually admitted the unit had “mistakenly” shot down the Boeing.
That explanation, which echoed and expanded on an initial statement in July 2020, was immediately dismissed by Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau. “The report has really avoided addressing the substance and the real reasons behind shooting down the plane,” Alghabra said in an interview. He and Garneau then said in a statement that “it appears incomplete and has no hard facts or evidence” to support Iran’s explanation.
Kathy Fox, chair of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), was equally critical — but at greater length during a March 18 news conference alongside Ewan Tasker, the TSB’s manager of international operations and a “designated expert” on the PS752 disaster.
She did acknowledge that Iran had given Canada more access than it was entitled to under Annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, which specifies which countries can participate in an accident investigation.
While the TSB had no official jurisdiction, two of its investigators were permitted to spend six days in Tehran, visiting the crash site and meeting with AAIB officials. Then they met in Kyiv with Iranian, Ukrainian, and French investigators — the latter having been authorized by Iran to download the Boeing’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders after an international outcry over how the investigation was initially handled.
“Throughout the course of the investigation, we were in direct contact with Iran’s AAIB and attended many discussions with the other participating countries,” Fox said. “However, in spite of multiple requests, we were never formally accorded the higher status of accredited representatives and were not allowed to listen to the cockpit voice recorder or directly access the flight data recorder.”
Despite the lack of direct access to the Boeing’s recorders, TSB investigators and a recorder specialist attended what Fox described as a “readout” of the recorders in Paris last July. Also, Ukraine recently solicited the TSB’s technical assistance last month and provided access to the draft safety report for review and comment, something Fox said Canada “would not have been entitled to” under the Annex 13 protocols.
Throughout the process, the TSB sought answers to questions about the sequence of events that led to the missile launches, the basis for the decision to keep Iranian airspace open during a heightened military alert, and why commercial traffic continued in the hours after Iran’s missile attack on Iraq.
“We submitted dozens more detailed questions . . . that we believed the final investigation report needed to address in order for it to be as thorough and credible,” Fox continued.
While she said Iran continued to provide no evidence to support the scenario it set out, she conceded it was plausible. However, she challenged the AAIB’s assertion that military activities were not within the scope of an Annex 13 investigation. “We do not agree.” Nor did the report discuss what steps the IRGC had to address, the underlying operational deficiencies that had led to the shootdown, or what actions had been taken to ensure there would be no more mistakes.
“Without this, how can the international civil aviation community be reassured that such a tragic error won’t happen again? Iran’s final report generally explains the risk assessment process and mitigations that its civilian authorities took in coordination with the military, given the uncertainty of a retaliatory strike following their launch of missiles into Iraq.”
Fox pointed out that Iran did not completely close its air space to civilian aircraft despite being in a state of heightened military alert, and had not warned carriers about the risk — as recommended by the Montreal-headquartered International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — until after PS752 was shot down. She also noted that Ukraine International Airlines was not the only international carrier to continue operating; eight other aircraft had departed Tehran ahead of PS752.
“In short, the report says ‘what’ happened, but it doesn’t answer the ‘why?’” she said, adding that complete answers are critical to avoiding future disasters of this kind.
“When a state’s accident investigation agency is not independent of the state aviation authority, as required by ICAO, such as Iran’s AAIB, it can affect the credibility of the final report, the findings, and the uptake of the resulting recommendations.”
Accordingly, she said, the TSB will press for a review of Annex 13 protocols to improve the credibility and transparency of future investigations, as well as public confidence in the system. She said it had “worked pretty well over the year in typical accidents but it has limitations.”
The PS752 Canadian victims’ families have been pressing the federal government to have ICAO publicly condemn Iran’s actions, to sanction the responsible officials, or to take the case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims said in a statement shortly after the AAIB report was made public that it appeared “to be mere fabrications and a continuation of a lie” in that, like earlier reports, “contained countless inconsistencies and are grossly inadequate to justify Iran’s claims about the causes.”
Hames Esmaeilion, an Aurora, Ontario, dentist whose wife and nine-year-old daughter were among the victims, said all requests for government action had been rebuffed. “After 15 months, no answers, no justice,” he told CBC News. “We deserve to know the truth . . . and none of these press conferences, none of these politicians, answer me. I have to beg. I have to ask all of them: ‘Do something for us.’”
More answers might be forthcoming because the government has put together a forensic “examination and assessment” team to analyze all available evidence and intelligence and report to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his National Security and Intelligence Advisor, Vince Rigby.
Led by Jeff Yaworski, a former deputy director of operations at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and now with Rigby’s office, the team was set up last October. Transport Minister Alghabra said March 17 that its report can be expected “in the coming days.”
Meanwhile, Canada has joined Afghanistan, Britain, Sweden, and Ukraine in an International Coordination and Response Group seeking to ensure a truly transparent investigation into the disaster and to coordinate legal efforts to pursue accountability and reparations from Iran, whose nationals accounted for roughly half of the victims.
In addition, the government continues to work through ICAO on the Safer Skies Initiative, a Canada-led multinational initiative to enhance airline security in or near conflict zones. Alghabra brought up the Flight 752 issue during a March 1 ICAO Council virtual meeting. “By working together, we can . . . prevent tragedies like the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 from ever happening again,” he said afterward. “We will continue to work closely with ICAO and other key partners to build a safer and more secure future.”