William Lawrence on Iran's Tragic Strike on a Ukrainian Passenger Aircraft

Published January 23rd, 2020 - 10:20 GMT
William Lawrence /Al Bawaba
William Lawrence /Al Bawaba


Earlier this month the Iranian government publicly admitted firing on a civilian Ukrainian aircraft, killing 176 civilian passengers and nine crew members by mistake, in a tragedy that took place on 8th January during a time of heightened tensions with the United States.

To gain further perspective on what happened, D.C. Insider spoke with former Senior Advisor for Global Engagement at the U.S. Department of State, William Lawrence.

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How will this affect Ukraine and Iran in terms of bilateral relations, especially considering their seemingly deteriorating relationship?

“My sense is that it will remain unchanged unless Iran finds new ways to obstruct the investigation. Even though Iran lied early on and resisted the internationalization of the investigation, the fact that they invited so many foreign investigators in and admitted, more or less, their responsibility, signaled that Iran was going to try to maintain all of their relationships.

the fact that they invited so many foreign investigators in and admitted, more or less, their responsibility, signaled that Iran was going to try to maintain all of their relationships.

If that is indeed Iran’s modus operandi, then it will be relatively easy for Iran and Ukraine to sort things out over time. Although we do have this short-term period of pain within both countries, there are domestic considerations right now that are dominating what countries do politically. But over the medium and long-term,  I expect the relationship to remain about the same, unless Iran throws up new obstructions.”


How about Iran and the EU? Is that relationship crumbling due to Iran’s decision to keep the investigation of the crash as closed as possible?

“There are a number of factors there... At the base, the problem isn’t the EU-Ukraine relationship but the EU-Russia relationship and the E.U.-U.S. relationship, which is complicating the EU-Ukraine relationship.

Trump’s relationship with Russia, which is perplexing at best and wildly confusing at worst, creates a situation where it’s often hard to predict what the U.S. is going to do. By consequence, it’s also difficult to foresee what Russia is going to do and that’s complicating the EU-Ukraine relationship.

Trump’s relationship with Russia, which is perplexing at best and wildly confusing at worst, creates a situation where it’s often hard to predict what the U.S. is going to do.

How that works out has everything to do with how Zalinski behaves toward the Europeans on the Ukrainian side and how much bandwidth the EU gives to this situation, given all the distractions and all the problems that the EU has at reaching a consensus. Over time, it’s going to depend on political behavior on the Ukrainian side and political will on the European side.”
 

Would you say that the missile strike by Iran has put the government of Ukraine in the middle of a conflict between the U.S. and Iran?

“I wouldn’t say that… There are a lot of other countries, like Iraq or Kuwait, that are directly implicated in the squeeze between Iran and the U.S... Trump certainly put a lot of pressure on Europe visa vis the JCPOA immediately following the missile exchanges because he was trying to pressure Europe to increase its criticism of Iranian violations of the JCPOA.

However, I don’t think that Ukraine is under a lot of extra pressure… After accidents, countries have a way of working out the specifics without poisoning the larger relationship and so I don’t expect this accident to have a major impact on the relationship between the two countries.”


Prior to Iran’s confirmation of shooting down the Boeing 737, Iran’s version of the narrative was that its military had mistakenly shot down the passenger jet… was this accurate?

“I’d say yes and no. I [did] believe that it was a mistake… Not that Iran had mistakenly launched a missile, but that it had mistakenly launched a missile at a civilian aircraft. It was entirely reasonable to have believed that the Iranians thought that this was a U.S. missile or aircraft that was off its trajectory and decided to hit it on purpose.

I [did] believe that it was a mistake… Not that Iran had mistakenly launched a missile, but that it had mistakenly launched a missile at a civilian aircraft.

Thus, it was mistaken in terms of the target, yet not on the launch… I do not believe they shot down a civilian aircraft on purpose. There’s no indication that the Iranian government was trying to kill anyone on that plane, which would have been an alternative explanation, and I don’t really believe that.”
 

Would Ukraine have been the only one to have advised Iran to admit to the incident?

“I do not think that it was simply Ukraine that forced the Iranians to come clean - it was the international community. There were at least six or eight countries that were pressuring Iran, including the U.S. The Iranians figured this out relatively early on and knew that their original denials would have to be reversed.

there were numerous independent sources and video footage from inside of Iran that confirmed the stories of an Iranian missile, which did not coincide with what the Iranian government was saying.

It probably took more time to get the official approvals at the highest level to finally come clean… Those things aren’t fast in certain countries and so it took them some days to reverse, particularly as press reports were beginning to reveal that there were numerous independent sources and video footage from inside of Iran that confirmed the stories of an Iranian missile, which did not coincide with what the Iranian government was saying.”
 

Iranian official Hassan Rezaeifar, the official leading the investigation and the director of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, had previously said that he would not be providing Ukraine with the flight data nor the cockpit voice recorders from the scene. Instead, he opted to try and analyze them in Iran and stated that no decision had been taken so far to send them to another country. What were his reasons?
 

“There are a whole set of reasons why Iran might have wanted to keep that information and a whole set of reasons why Iran might want have wanted to send it. It may simply be that they’re trying to demonstrate that they can conduct an internationally viable investigation within Iran, and they don’t need outside expertise - other than whatever expertise is sent it from the outside.

I do suspect that there’ll be a lot of resistance in Iran and sometimes that resistance could be more bureaucratic and cultural rather than a coverup, especially when there isn’t any incentive for a coverup.

Then we get into the nuts and bolts… Does Iran have the technical capacity to have a technologically correct analysis that’s acceptable by international standards? I do suspect that there’ll be a lot of resistance in Iran and sometimes that resistance could be more bureaucratic and cultural rather than a coverup, especially when there isn’t any incentive for a coverup.”


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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