North Africa, West Asia

“Iran’s airspace is not safe”: is more isolation the answer?

Will halting flights to Iran produce the desirable outcome and induce Iran into cooperation in the investigation of the Ukrainian plane crash?

Kourosh Ziabari
4 June 2020, 12.01am
A tribute to the plane crash victims in Kiev, Ukraine. 17 Feb 2020
Picture by Alexey Ivanov / SOPA Images/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Six months after the Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 catastrophe, families of the 176 victims and the governments involved, are still waiting for accountability.

On the morning of 8 January, the Kiev-bound UIA flight PS752 crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s international airport, killing all passengers and crew members on board. Iran’s aviation authorities initially attributed the deadly incident to technical error in the aircraft. However, intelligence agencies of a number of countries sounded the alarm that the jetliner was targeted by missiles most probably fired from a close range and that technical error was out of the question.

After three days of denial, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps eventually admitted that it had shot down the plane unintentionally, mistaking it for a hostile target.

The incident took place in a highly tense atmosphere in the Middle East, on the same day that Iran launched ballistic missiles against the US-operated Ayn al-Asad airbase in Al Anbar Governorate, Iraq, in reprisal for the killing of high-ranking Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by the United States five days earlier. As an all-out military confrontation was in the offing, many experts had warned that civilian flights to and from Iran should have been halted until hostilities subsided.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani termed the accident an “unforgivable error,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif extended apologies over the dereliction and the IRGC admitted responsibility. Iran’s judiciary promised that it would launch a probe into the incident and take action against the responsible parties.

Now, almost six months have passed since the painful episode, and no Iranian official has been sacked, no resignation has been offered, no trial held and only one person whose identity has not been disclosed remains in custody.

With Iran refusing to fully cooperate in investigations leading to the revelation of the details of and reasons behind the disaster, the country’s leadership is finding itself in hot water. Iran’s aviation authorities have said they will not hand over the flight’s black box to Boeing, the US-based manufacturer of the aircraft, and Ukraine’s requests that Iran sends in the black box flight recorders to Kiev for scrutiny have been brushed aside.

Ukrainian authorities have stated they are ready to escalate the dispute to the International Court of Justice to ensure Iran complies with its legal obligations.

The Canadian government, which lost 63 citizens in the incident, is also upping the ante against Iran in a bid to demand accountability and find answers to many mysteries revolving around the doomed flight.

In a joint statement, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Minister of Transport Marc Garneau noted that as the tragedy has touched all Canadians, they continue to remember the victims and “will be relentless in the pursuit of justice for them and their families.”

However, it is not only diplomatic pressure that is being exerted on Iran. The families of the victims have been independently raising their voices ever since the tragedy dominated the headlines, and are presently calling for an international embargo against Iran’s “unsafe sky.”

Iran’s airspace is not safe”

Hamed Esmaeilion, an Iranian-Canadian dentist residing in Halifax, lost his wife and 9-year-old daughter in the flight. He emerged as a celebrity after giving emotional interviews to media, articulately describing the agony he suffered after getting informed of the shooting down, the tribulations he embraced to repatriate the bodies of his wife and daughter to Canada for burial and his resentment toward those who took his family away from him.

He passionately talked about how the 9-year-old Reera’s piano playing skills mesmerized everybody, how burdensome it was for him to give a call to her school to say she will be absent forever, and why it is difficult for him to forgive those who killed her.

Esmaeilion is now the interim spokesperson of the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims. They are demanding justice, and in order to compel the Iranian government to work with the international community transparently, they have started a petition urging international airlines to avoid Iran’s airspace until the an investigation of flight PS752 is carried out.

The petition, titled “Iran’s airspace is not safe,” has been signed by upward of 44,000 people so far, and has generated an extensive debate on Iran’s social media.

This is while reports had surfaced that a number of European airlines, headed by Lufthansa, have been involved in negotiations with Iran over resuming their flights.

It goes without saying that Iran’s deadly mistake is indefensible, that there is nothing it can do to revive the perished lives, and that it should fully cooperate in good faith so that the affected families get answers to their questions. Iran’s failure to deliver the black box and cockpit voice recorder to either the United States, Canada or Ukraine is certainly unjustifiable.

That being said, there is an essential question that merits consideration: will pressuring international airlines to avoid using Iran’s air corridor and halting their flights to the country produce the desirable outcome and induce Iran into cooperation? Or is such an approach destined to merely slap more isolation on a suffering civilian population and cut off the remainder of their minimal ties with the outside world?

In a world transformed by the coronavirus pandemic, Iran is one of the hardest-hit countries, at the same time bearing the brunt of harrowing US sanctions. The coronavirus crisis has reduced the number of flights traveling through Iran’s airspace from 900 per day to 200. Each flight earns Iran a revenue of USD 800. For some three months now, Tehran’s international airport hasn’t had more than four incoming flights per day. Since the early days of the outbreak of the coronavirus until 3 April, Iranian airlines sustained a damage of USD 173 million due to the cancellation of their international flights.

These flights serve to take Iranian students, academics, business people, journalists, artists, athletes, patients and ordinary citizens to their destinations, connecting them with their institutions and families. What is the point of depriving them of their connections and adding to the challenges they have to live through by virtue of being Iranian?

The demands that the Islamic Republic cooperate for a thorough and reliable investigation into the PS752 tragedy are totally legitimate. But it is undue if they translate into further isolation and exclusion for Iranians. In order to render Iran a responsible actor, people with a loud voice such as Hamed Esmaeilion should aim at integrating Iran, a nation state with its vices and virtues, into the community of nations, rather than doubly ostracizing it and dehumanizing its people.

Owing to its unbounded differences with the world, Iran has in practice become a pariah state over the past four decades, with little to no meaningful banking, trade, transportation, energy, financial, cultural, academic and scientific ties with the world. Corruption and mismanagement have thrived. Increased isolation is not the pathway through which it can be made a better, more equal and more transparent society in which national interests are prioritized.

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