Edmonton (Reuters) – Friends and families of some of the 63 Canadians killed in a Ukrainian plane crash in Iran are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take a tougher stance after Ottawa accused Iran of having downed the plane, albeit probably by mistake.
But while Trudeau faces pressure at home to respond strongly, he has few options, especially after Canada broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2012. Iran has said it will allow Canadian, U.S. and other international officials to participate in the investigation into Wednesday’s crash.
Trudeau said on Thursday that the airliner was likely brought down by an Iranian missile, a view echoed by the United States and Britain. Iran initially denies the charge.
The prime minister “completely misses the point” when he does not condemn the Iranian government, said Ali Ashtari, 39, a data scientist from Toronto who lost a friend in the crash.
Ashtari said Canada should designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation and impose sanctions on them. The government already lists the IRGC’s overseas arm, the Quds Force, as a terrorist group.
“This is the minimum that we want from the government,” Ashtari said at a vigil in Toronto. “Otherwise it’s just giving speech with teary eyes, it gives nothing.”
Trudeau said Ottawa had demanded Canadian access to Iran to provide consular services, identify victims and participate in the crash investigation.
Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said on Twitter that Iran had granted two visas so far to Canadian officials.
The crash on Wednesday, which killed all 176 people on board, occurred as Iran was on alert for possible reprisals after it launched missiles on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq.
“We would just urge him (Trudeau) to use all his power to find out what really happened and hold the responsible accountable,” Amir Arsalani, who lost his sister, her husband and their one-year-old daughter, told Reuters.
Trudeau sidestepped questions on Thursday as to whether the United States should be held at least partially responsible given that Iran’s attack on U.S. forces was in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, former Quds Force leader.
Asked whether he supported the U.S. assertion that killing Soleimani prevented an imminent attack, he replied: “The Americans made a decision based on their threat assessment.”
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. cited two government sources as saying Washington should have warned Canada in advance about the drone strike. Ottawa also wants a more thorough explanation of the thinking behind the attack, they added.
Ottawa is focussing in talks with allies on how it can play as large a role as possible in the probe rather than expressing anger against either Iran or the United States, according to three sources familiar with the private conversations.
“There has been no fingerpointing or blame at this stage,” said one of the sources, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.
Relations between Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump are formal at best, with Trudeau last month caught on camera joking about the U.S. president, and Trump calling him “two-faced”.
There was no benefit to the government to further sour relations by making “a big public statement” about the United States, said Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and international relations professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“Canadians however are increasingly concerned that we are collateral damage in several campaigns by the United States in achieving its political objectives without any consultations whatsoever,” she said.
Ottawa’s best option for now was to persuade like-minded nations to put pressure on Iran, she added.
Trudeau has few ways to punish Iran in the short term. Bilateral trade – already limited by sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program – totalled just over C$200 million in 2018.
Canadian government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Iran said on Friday it wanted to download black box recordings itself, and that a probe into the crash could take up to two years.
Trudeau was due to meet privately with family members of the victims in Toronto on Friday, according to his official itinerary.
“This cannot go without consequence,” said Edmonton engineering student Ali Azimi, 21, whose professor was killed. “If it is determined and proven that this was related to a missile launch, we need to make the government of Iran pay.”