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The effects of the downing of Ukraine flight on US-Canada relations

January 22, 2020 at 6:54 pm

Officials inspect pieces of a Boeing 737 plane belonging to Ukrainian International Airlines after it crashed in Iran on 10 January 2020 [AFP/Getty Images]

On 11 January, Iranian senior leaders formally apologised for their “disastrous mistake” of shooting down a commercial airliner, flight 752, allegedly confusing it for a US cruise missile. “Our profound regrets, apologies, and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a tweet.

A few hours after Iran fired missiles at the American military bases in Iraq, they mistakenly struck the Ukrainian flight destined for Kiev as a US retaliation effort. In a statement, General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace division, responded: “We were at that time ready for an all-out war with the United States. We had reports of cruise missiles fired at Iran. The air defense operator sent a message to his commanders, but after he didn’t receive any response for 10 seconds, he decided to shoot it down.”

Shortly after the flight went down, countries that had citizens aboard the flight united to create a task force in order to share credible answers and information regarding the horrific accident. Most of the plane’s passengers were Canadian or bound for Canada. It is estimated that 57 Canadian citizens were on the flight and as many as 75 more had ties to the country.

READ: Bodies of Ukrainian victims of Iran plane crash returned home

Prior to Iran’s admissions, the United States had announced new sanctions in response to Iranian missile strikes on Iraqi bases. This round of penalties by the US was set to “target multiple sectors of the Islamic Republic’s economy.” The sanctions would specifically target construction, manufacturing, textiles and mining. These sanctions were announced on 10 January by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, stating these sanctions were “part of our commitment to stop the Iranian regime’s global terrorist activities.” However, after the downing of flight 752 on 11 January, the United States has taken no further actions against Iran.

Canada will likely need support from the US to respond to these attacks. Currently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken a relatively mild approach. Roland Paris, Trudeau’s former foreign policy adviser and professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, stated that Trudeau “resisted the temptation to lash out.” Yet, pressure has been increasing on the prime minister to respond strongly to the attack. In order to make such a statement, he would need the support of the United States, an important regional ally.

Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 30 November 2018 [Murat Kaynak/Anadolu Agency]

Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 30 November 2018 [Murat Kaynak/Anadolu Agency]

The US, however, may choose not to assist Canada with an international response to the downing of flight 752. Deteriorating diplomatic relations between the two countries during the Trump administration and the lack of a credible Canadian military response creates a strong likelihood that there will be no repercussions for Iran following this attack on a civilian airliner. In addition, there has been sentiment among the Canadian population that the death of their fellow citizens could have been avoided had the US not killed Iranian Commander Qassem Soleimani.

Canadian business-owners have voiced their outrage towards President Trump. Michael McCain, the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, stated that he was “very angry” and dubbed Trump the “narcissist in Washington” for this horrific attack, where an employee of his lost family members.

READ: Families want compensation for downed Ukrainian plane

While this moment will prove to be a test for the two neighbours, relations between the two countries have been tense for some time now. The two leaders have sparred words on multiple occasions, with Trump calling Mr. Trudeau “two-faced” after he saw Trudeau “gossiping” in a video about the president. This already strained relationship will not improve as Canadain citizens push Trudeau to blame Trump for the attack. Trudeau has already been “grilled” at a news conference about whether or not he believes it was, in fact, Trump’s fault through instigation by killing Soleimani. In response, Trudeau stated: “I think that’s one of the many questions that people will be thinking about and trying to find answers to.” This will likely create diplomatic challenges ahead.

In one aspect, Trudeau must stand by his citizens and advocate for the US to acknowledge the fact that the downing of flight 752 was instigated by the killing of Soleimani, or to keep quiet so as not to further damage relations between the US and Canada. The latter option will surely make him unpopular and therefore hurt his chances of being re-elected.

The two leaders are now more susceptible to icing relations than ever before. The downing of flight 752 has placed Trudeau in a tough position, stuck between needing US help and being urged to place more blame on the Trump administration for supposed instigation. Either scenario sees Trudeau in a weakened state; he will seem weak if he cedes that he needs America’s help in displaying a powerful response to an attack on his citizens, or he will further degrade his country’s national interests by alienating the world’s superpower. A Ukrainian airline flying Canadian citizens on an American-made plane was shot down in Iran and the world waits in suspense as Canada and the United States tread delicately new territory in their long history of friendship.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.