The incident occurred during a week of heightened military tensions with the United States.
Iran’s belated admission that it had mistakenly targeted the plane set off student-led demonstrations and rare internal criticism of the country’s clerical leadership. Demands for accountability have come from protesters as well as President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif, both relative political moderates whose statements over the past few days have highlighted the divisions between Iran’ s pro-reform and conservative camps.
“We’ve had people in the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the fact that they were lied to for a couple of days,” Zarif said at the Raisina Dialogue, an annual foreign policy conference in New Delhi.
“Our military forces were brave enough to claim responsibility early on. But people are angry even with those two days. That is the expectation that people have with the government — that the government should have disclosed the information,” the foreign minister said.
“Why did it happen? Because there was a crisis,” Zarif added. And in a crisis, “people make mistakes, unforgivable mistakes.” He said the loss of life in the incident “was because of tensions created by the United States.”
Marc Garneau, Canada’s transport minister, told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday that Iran has the “black boxes” — the flight voice and data recorders — and has told Canada that its investigators will be allowed to participate in their decoding and analysis. However, Garneau added, “that remains to be seen because that has not happened yet.”
Zarif’s comments came a day after Iran’s judiciary said it had arrested “some individuals” in connection with the downing of the Ukrainian airliner, without elaborating. Rouhanialso called Tuesday for the creation of a special court to hear the case, citing international scrutiny and domestic demands for justice.
The shoot-down killed 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, including the crew, among others. Most, if not all, of the Canadians were reported to be of Iranian origin or dual nationals.
Five days earlier, a U.S. drone strike ordered by President Trump had killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s Quds Force, outside Baghdad’s international airport, setting off a war of words and, eventually, a retaliatory strike by Iran on bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops. As the tensions spiraled, Iran announced it would no longer abide by limitations on its nuclear energy program placed under a deal it signed with world powers in 2015.
On Tuesday, European countries triggered a dispute mechanism in the nuclear deal, a move that could lead to the return of United Nations sanctions on Tehran. Iran, in turn, accused the governments of Britain, France and Germany of obediently following Trump, who withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 and has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against the government in Tehran.
Rouhani on Wednesday criticized the European move in threatening terms, according to comments carried by Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency. “Today, U.S. soldiers are in danger, tomorrow European soldiers may be in danger, too,” he said during a cabinet meeting, as reported by Fars.
Iran’s state media reported Wednesday that British Ambassador Robert Macaire has left the country for undisclosed reasons. Macaire was detained briefly Saturday in Tehran after attending what had been planned as a “vigil” for the victims aboard the Ukrainian Boeing 737-800.
He was “summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Sunday for ‘unconventional behavior’ inconsistent with his diplomatic status and being present in an ‘illegal gathering,’ ” the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported, adding that he departed Iran on Tuesday.
Macaire is “returning to the [United Kingdom] today on a long-planned visit,” a British Foreign Office spokesman said in a statement Wednesday. “He will have a number of meetings while in the UK and this is very much business as usual. He will be returning to Iran in the coming days.”
Fahim reported from Istanbul. Niha Masih in New Delhi, Karla Adam in London, Erin Cunningham in Istanbul and Amanda Coletta in Toronto contributed to this report.