By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has just ruled that the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was an intentional act of terrorism perpetrated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The announcement immediately prompted renewed calls for Western governments to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization and to adopt other measures that might hold Tehran accountable for such incidents. Somewhat ironically, though, the Canadian court’s ruling came just a day after British, French, and German diplomats held their latest talks with Iranian counterparts and signaled that their top priority remains to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal and restore sanctions relief for the Iranian regime.
The European delegates to the Vienna talks invariably expressed optimism in their remarks to international media on Wednesday. But one has to wonder where that optimism came from considering that there were no signs of compromise on the Iranian side and, according to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, the process of bringing Iran back into compliance is expected to be “very arduous.”
Maas and his colleagues must recognize that that difficulty will only increase if the international community fails to take action over the Flight 752 incident. Policymakers’ responses to that 16-month-old disaster have been notably muted while investigations and litigation have been ongoing. Tehran faced little international pressure in response to its initial effort to misrepresent the IRGC missile strike as a “technical problem” with the targeted airliner. That pressure barely increased when the Iranian regime began obstructing international investigations into the incident and withholding the black box from civil aviation authorities.
Because of that obstruction and the relative lack of a coordinated response, investigations are still being conducted to this day by affected countries, including Canada which had 55 citizens and 30 permanent residents on the flight. In total, 176 passengers and crew members were killed when Flight 752 was successively hit by two IRGC missiles, causing it to crash only minutes after its departure from Tehran’s Khomeini International Airport.
Complete forensic analysis of the crash site and data recorder has yet to be released, but Western governments should not feel compelled to wait any longer before speaking out about the regime’s culpability. The surface-level details are sufficient on their own to establish that the missile strike was more than likely intentional. And this is precisely what Justice Edward Belobaba determined in the Ontario court case.
“The plaintiffs have established that the shooting down of Flight 752 by the defendants was an act of terrorism and constitutes “terrorist activity,” he said. “I find on a balance of probabilities that the missile attacks on Flight 752 were intentional and directly caused the deaths of all onboard.”
The decision was based partly on testimony describing the safeguards present in the weapons systems and procedures used by the IRGC, which would have made it virtually impossible for a commercial airliner to be mistaken for a missile fired by a hostile power, as Tehran has claimed. And suspicion falls even more heavily on the regime when one considers that this was not even its first cover story. The leading authorities’ first impulse was to deny any responsibility whatsoever, which implies that they recognized the potential for extreme backlash against a true and complete account of what happened on January 8, 2020.
Domestically, Tehran received a portion of the feared backlash when it became clear that the regime had attempted to cover up the incident altogether. Iranian students and other activists staged demonstrations all across the country within days of the incident, so as to mourn the victims, explicitly condemn the IRGC, and call for the resignations of all the leading officials who support that hardline paramilitary and the system that directs it toward terrorist objectives.
But internationally, it looks more like Tehran’s strategy of denial and deflection has proven successful. The regime never faced any consequences in the form of sanctions or diplomatic isolation of its attempt to cover up the cause of death for 176 people. Quite the contrary, its representatives have continually been welcomed back into the fold for international dialogue without having to contend with the danger of that dialogue straying outside its narrow confines.
There’s little question that this has emboldened the Iranian regime. This is evident from the tone of their discussions in Vienna, which feature the endless repetition of Iran’s initial demands, namely that all US sanctions be suspended before the regime takes a single step back toward compliance with the restrictions that the 2015 agreement had imposed on its nuclear program.
Tehran’s comprehensive non-compliance has been ongoing for well over a year, now, and its nuclear advancements have consequently exceeded what was established before the start of negotiations that would lead to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But this, too, is something for which the regime has faced no consequences. Quite to the contrary, European policymakers and diplomats have signaled their willingness to help Iranian entities circumvent US sanctions and retain some of the economic benefits of a deal Tehran was systematically violating.
It is hard to understand how those same Europeans could have possibly come away from the most recent Vienna talks with a sense of optimism about Iran’s future decision-making. The regime has virtually no incentive to comply with any Western demands as long as most Western governments are showing themselves as unwilling to specify consequences for failing to do so.
This would be bad enough if European permissiveness were limited to the nuclear sphere. But if the IRGC continues to evade terrorist designation and the Iranian regime remains a welcome participant in standard diplomatic interactions following the Ontario court’s ruling, it will only reaffirm the notion that Tehran enjoys impunity in matters of terrorism and human rights abuses as well.
Unfortunately, this message has already been communicated quite clearly via the international community’s silence in the face of earlier Iranian terror plots that did not ultimately result in significant casualties. Several such incidents were uncovered in 2018 alone, a year that began with the regime desperate to restore its standing following a nationwide uprising among its own people. In March of that year, Iranian operatives were found to be plotting to deploy a truck bomb in Albania at the New Year gathering of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). And in June, European authorities thwarted the bombing of a rally for Iran Freedom that had been organized just outside Paris by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
That event was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates and hundreds of political dignitaries including policymakers and scholars from throughout Europe. Although a high-ranking Iranian diplomat was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in Belgium for the plot, no action has been taken to hold the Iranian regime itself accountable.
It is bad enough to turn a blind eye to the potential killing of Iranian activists and European politicians, but in the wake of the Flight 752 ruling, the international community risks turning a blind eye to the actual murder of dozens of citizens of Canada, Britain, Sweden, and Ukraine. If the Ontario court’s ruling does not prompt coordinated action, Tehran’s sense of impunity will be reinforced and the regime will surely become even more obstinate in nuclear talks and in all other matters that affect Western interests and international security.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)