Susan Delacourt: PM’s words left room for Iran to confess that it shot down plane

One does wonder how Donald Trump would be reacting if dozens of Americans were accidentally shot out of the sky this week in Iran. Actually, no one needs to wonder. Less than a week ago, Trump was warning Iran that it would pay dearly if any missiles killed Americans as part of the escalating tension in the region — kicked off by his drone strike against a top Iranian military commander.

No Americans were killed when Iran retaliated against two U.S. bases last Tuesday, in what commentators and experts noted was clearly a deliberately “bloodless” attack, designed to avoid all-out war.

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But 57 Canadians died hours later — accidentally, Iran has remarkably acknowledged — and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is “outraged and furious.”

Trump was reportedly relieved this week after the missiles stopped firing in Iran; Canada has not been permitted this sentiment.

And while Trump was tweeting about his own impeachment drama and polling figures on Saturday morning, Trudeau was talking to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about deaths that never should have happened. Something is very wrong with this picture.

Angry that he is, Trudeau has not taken to Twitter to register fury or threats at this pointless, reckless tragedy, as one assumes Trump would have done.

Canada’s prime minister has appeared instead at three successive, sombre news conferences in the National Press Theatre in the past few days, flanked by ministers and officials who have been working around the clock with him.

Trudeau’s outrage has been delivered in precisely, diplomatically parsed sentences — fury that the event happened, but not at why it happened or who caused it. Not yet, anyway.

The prime minister is leaving room, though, for those who will be looking to blame Trump, at least partly, for setting off the chain of events that have caused so much grief in Canada.

“In times of conflict and tension, that’s precisely when innocent lives are lost,” Trudeau said in reply to a question in French on Saturday, about whether he linked the tragedy to recent U.S. actions in the region. “Obviously in this context in the Middle East these days, that contributed to this tragedy.”

Trudeau’s Prime Minister’s Office initially saw itself as mainly a spectator — a highly interested spectator — to the drama unfolding between the U.S. and Iran over these early days of 2020.

Late Jan. 7, officials in the PMO saw the news of the plane crash in Tehran, but it wasn’t until the early hours of Jan. 8 that Trudeau and his team were notified of the large loss of Canadian lives on that Ukrainian flight headed from Tehran to Kyiv. They also learned that 138 people on that flight had been destined to fly on to Canada.

Operations inside government kicked into high gear then, with hundreds of government workers and dozens inside the PMO focused solely on the fallout from this incident. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, and issues manager Brian Clow co-ordinated the response across the government.

Trudeau made an early call to Bob Rae, the former Liberal leader and Ontario premier, who led a 2005 inquiry into the Air India tragedy that killed 329 people in 1985. According to PMO sources, Rae stressed the importance of the PM staying in close touch with the families of the victims — advice that Trudeau has been duly following. On Sunday, Trudeau flew to Edmonton, home to at least 30 of the people who died aboard the Ukrainian jet.

One other major resource of advice for the PM was Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had been through the 2014 Malaysian Airlines disaster that killed nearly 300 people, two thirds of them Dutch citizens. Rutte told Trudeau how crucial it was to engage international networks in the search for answers on the tragedy.

The Canadian government, without diplomatic ties to Iran, had to use those networks to set up contact with the Iranian government.

As more intelligence reports from the network pointed to a missile attack, the Canadian government team was hoping — but not expecting — to get Iran to acknowledge the cause.

Trudeau and his team of ministers, along with defence chief Jonathan Vance, deliberately included the possibility of an “accidental” or “inadvertent” attack in their public statements late in the week to leave Iran some diplomatic space for that acknowledgment. Tone, they believed, was crucial — if they had flown into some kind of public fury (the kind that some other world leader would have used) they felt they would make it difficult for Iran to come forward.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne talked to his Iranian counterpart as well, Mohammad Javad Zarif, telling him that Trudeau was hoping to speak to president Rouhani.

Late on Jan. 10, Clow, Telford and the government team received news reports that Iran was getting ready to talk publicly about the cause of the crash. Trudeau was informed after his return to Ottawa from Toronto, where he had been meeting with families of the victims.

Early on Jan. 11, the Iranian president posted the admission of a “disastrous mistake” on Twitter. Trudeau and Rouhani then spoke later in the morning. By around 1 p.m. that day, the prime minister trudged back to the National Press Theatre for yet another news conference, where he had a bit more leeway to say how furious he was.

The fallout from this senseless tragedy now goes into a new phase, PMO sources say, with the Canadian government focused on the investigation and help for the victims, rather than the mere cause of it.

That is a complex discussion and it will involve the U.S., though no immediate, further talks with Trump are scheduled. But Canada still doesn’t get to feel the relief that the U.S. president felt after missiles flew in Iran last week. The fury here is more diplomatic, and strategic.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist for the Toronto Star.

Twitter: @susandelacourt

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