LONDON — A dispute over a 2015 deal aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons is casting a shadow over an international meeting that Canada hopes will lead to justice and financial compensation for the families of the 176 victims aboard an aircraft shot down over Tehran last week.
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne arrived late Wednesday in London hours before he is to host the meeting at the Canadian High Commission with representatives of Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and Britain, all of whom lost citizens when an Iranian missile hit Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752.
Dutch officials will also be attending given their expertise stemming from a five-year-long probe of the deadly shootdown of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, which investigators have blamed on Russia.
Speaking in Ottawa, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the group would send Iran "strong messages" and "let them know exactly what has to happen."
Garneau said Iran is co-operating with the two Canadian investigators on the scene as part of an international team, which included a look at the plane's wreckage Wednesday. However, Garneau said he wants their participation in the probe formalized to ensure Iran follows through on its invitation for Canadian experts to help analyze the plane's flight data and voice recorders, known as the "black boxes."
"We can say a missile struck the airplane ... but we don't know anything about after that happened," Garneau said.
"The airplane did continue in a loop before it tragically impacted the ground. What was happening during that time? Where did the impact occur? These are questions that the families of the victims want answers to and it is something that Canadians want answers to as well."
All aboard, including 57 Canadians and 82 Iranians, were killed. The Canadian Press has independently confirmed at least 89 victims with ties to Canada, many of them students and professors returning after spending the December break visiting relatives in Iran.
Omar Alghabra, the prime minister's parliamentary secretary, said the Liberal government is "actively exploring" options for compensating victims' families in the interim knowing the international process could drag on for years.
Iran denied for days it shot down the passenger plane, but later admitted to what it said was a mistake. On Wednesday, the country's top diplomat told an international conference that the military withheld the information from government and that Iranians were lied to for days after the crash.
Garneau said he has seen a video recording — publicized by the New York Times — showing what appear to be two missiles targeting the plane, but cautioned against jumping to conclusions before the investigation is complete.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned Europe its soldiers in the Middle East "could be in danger" because of a move by Britain, France and Germany to trigger a section of the 2015 nuclear agreement that could bring back European sanctions against Iran.
Before travelling to London, Champagne issued a statement supporting the European decision and called on Iran to "restore its full commitments" to the deal.
Garneau said the argument over the nuclear deal won't affect Thursday's meeting in London.
The fate of the 2015 nuclear deal has been intertwined with the chain of events that led to last week's downing of the Ukrainian airlines plane.
In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, after pillorying it as a failure to prevent Iran from enriching enough uranium to produce an atomic bomb. Trump started a campaign of "maximum pressure" to force Iran to renegotiate a better deal, but that hasn't happened.
Tensions escalated further between the two countries when Trump approved a drone attack that killed Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general, on Jan. 3. Two days later, Iran said it would no longer abide by the nuclear deal's limits on the production of bomb-making material, but would still allow the UN to inspect nuclear facilities.
And last week, Iran fired missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing American troops — Canadian military personnel were at one — in retaliation for Soleimani's killing. Just hours after that, amid nervousness about possibly American retribution, Iran's military shot down the Ukrainian passenger jet.
In a Global News interview aired Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said had it not been for the recently elevated tensions, "those Canadians would be right now home with their families."
Anger has swelled in Iran as protesters have taken to the streets in recent days over the initial coverup by the military. Iran announced Tuesday the arrests of an unspecified number of people implicated after "extensive investigations" into the downing of the plane. The country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is expected to preside over Friday prayers in Iran for the first time in years.
"It is a massive crisis in Iran, and it's a question mark as to whether these arrests and these measures will be sufficient to satisfy the public who clearly view this as going far, far higher than just a couple of operatives who dealt with the anti-aircraft missiles," said Trita Parsi, an Iranian-born analyst who co-founded the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington.
Kiavash Najafi, an Iranian-born Canadian who served as an aide to the NDP's former foreign affairs critic, said the Iranian regime is split between people who do and don't want to co-operate with the West. He said the tragedy has given Canada an opportunity to influence change in Iran.
"It's not just seeking justice for the victims and their families, but also it's to keep creating conditions so the country (Iran) can move forward towards democracy. That's what the majority of Iranians want," said Najafi, who spent his first 16 years in Iran.
"Given that we have found this unique opportunity for Canada to have influence, I think it's really important to not lose sight of those aspects."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2020.
— With files from Jordan Press in Ottawa, and the Associated Press