A War That Won’t Start But Never Ends

The downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 outside Tehran on January 8 was also a Canadian tragedy. The country’s grief for the dead was only compounded by the revelation that most on board the aircraft were en route to Canada. The admission by Iran’s government that its armed forces had mistaken the plane for an American cruise missile introduced a sense of betrayal and confusion.

The devastating loss of life was felt nationally, as communities across the country mourned as one. The incident entered the public consciousness unlike others that came before it. First, the Prime Minister attended vigils and met with the families of victims, then he demanded justice and accountability from Iran on the global stage. The victims on that flight were new families, young students, accomplished academics, scientists, entrepreneurs, community organizers, grandparents, and children as young as one. One is left to wonder how many future Canadians perished among them.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a vigil on Parliament Hill, Ottawa.

From Edmonton to Toronto to Halifax, the accident has brought Canada’s disparate diaspora of Iranians together. Members of the Iranian-Canadian community are oftentimes divided through their traumas — whether of revolutionary violence, the war with Iraq, suffocating economic sanctions, or persecution at the hands of the state — but the stories emerging from that ill-fated flight are all too familiar. Of the 176 passengers on board, 147 were Iranian nationals, and several dozen had varying connections to different parts of Canada. The victims were dual-citizens or permanent residents, and several were Iranian students visiting relatives during the winter break; more than 20 Canadian colleges and universities have mourned the loss of Iranian students and faculty members in the crash.

In turn, the sudden loss of so many lives has increased the visibility of the Iranian-Canadian community. Canada is home to the second largest group of Iranians living outside of Iran, and the victims’ aboard the flight represented the best of the diaspora. Canadian media outlets have appropriately honoured the lives of those killed in the crash and leaders of community groups and ordinary Iranian-Canadians have expressed gratitude for the outpouring of love and support within Canada in response to the tragedy.

This has been particularly valuable in the wake of rising tensions in the region, as events in Iran and its people are often mischaracterized in the media and by elected officials. The downing of the flight has necessitated a better understanding of the Iranian-Canadian community, which has grown in waves since the late 1970s. The initial wave that fled Iran during the revolution and the war with Iraq are haunted by the fervor and bloodshed, as are the activist class who agitate for regime change and civil strife from abroad. Canadian commentators and outlets regularly elevate these voices, helping to present a dual-reality in which Iran’s government is a domineering force in the Middle East, yet perpetually poised to collapse at the hands of young, secular revolutionaries.

Iranians in Tehran mourn those killed in the accidental downing of Flight 752.

But the majority of Iranians in Canada frequently travel back and forth, and can identify the contradictions between representations of Iran in the media and their own lived experiences in the country. While still critical of Iran’s ruling establishment, many point to more humanizing portrayals of the country, to the everyday impact of sanctions on ordinary people, or to the lessons of the U.S. adventurism in the region — and risk being labelled as apologists for Iran’s government.

The lack of consular services on the ground in Iran following the crash has also reinvigorated the debate on the future of Ottawa’s relations with Tehran, which were severed in 2012. Prior to the fatal accident, Canada’s policy toward Iran had been at a standstill. After having pledged to restore ties with Tehran in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s government signalled in 2018 that it was no longer committed to re-engaging Iran. During last year’s federal campaign, the issue of relations with Iran rarely came up.

But following the downing of Flight 752, Canada is now embroiled in the conflict between Iran and the United States. Only hours before the deadly crash, Iran’s government had responded to the assassination of its top military official by peppering a U.S. military base in Iraq with ballistic missiles. Anticipating a response by the United States, aerial defence systems across Iran were placed on high alert.

For a brief period, it appeared the worst had passed. Iran’s precision strikes resulted in no American casualties and U.S. leaders had seemingly backed down. Later that night, as Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 took off from Tehran’s main airport, it appeared that those on board had escaped through the fog of war; some passengers were instead worried for those they were leaving behind. Within minutes, however, air traffic control in Tehran suddenly lost communication with the aircraft, and soon after, video of the burning plane’s demise emerged online.

For Iranians in Canada, the crash served as yet another reminder that the community cannot escape the cross hairs of the four decade old conflict between the United States and Iran. For years, Iranian-Canadians have endured the toll of sanctions on family members, the closure of bank accounts, a lack of diplomatic or consular services, and even slow processing times for permanent residencies. More recently, as a result of the Trump administration’s travel ban, Canada’s border with the United States has become an arbitrary detention site for Iranians. Now, the dangers of simply visiting family and friends can be a daunting undertaking.

In Iran, the fatal downing of Flight 752 perpetuated a long week of mourning that stretched from Baghdad, to Kerman, and finally to Tehran. As students at Tehran’s AmirKabir University of Technology said in a recent statement, “These days, Iran is full of sadness and mourning. We wash away blood with more blood, we add pain upon pain, we wash the corpse of one martyr with the blood of another martyr. It seems that history has been compressed. We experience one crisis after another.”

The funeral of Maj. General Qassem Soleimani passes through Tehran on January 6.

On Flight 752, the final thoughts of the victims’ minds may have been that they were the first casualties of a hot war between Iran and the United States. That reality may have been averted, but in just a few days, Iranians will be in the streets again — this time to commemorate 40 days of mourning for Maj. General Qassem Soleimani, those trampled in Kerman, and the victims of Flight 752.

The memory of those killed will be best served by ensuring they are the final victims of the relentless politics of sanctions, war, and hostility. Only this will soothe the cycle of loss and tragedy across Iran.

Sam Khanlari is a Toronto-based writer with a focus on Iranian affairs. His work has been published by Toronto Star and CBC.

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