Could diplomacy come after tragedy in Iran?

The downing of the Ukrainian airliner may pave the way for de-escalation between the US and Iran.

Ukraine flight crash
People gather for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the Ukraine plane crash, at the gate of Amri Kabir University in Tehran, Iran on January 11, 2020 [AP/Ebrahim Noroozi]

The downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 in which 176 people were killed is indeed a human tragedy of immense proportions. Its fallout is that much more complicated as it comes amid a totally unnecessary crisis.

We now know that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired the missiles at the plane by mistake. That the Iranian airspace was open for civilian aircraft at a time of such tensions and threats of retaliation – which gave space for human error – is a concerning sign of Iran’s inability to manage such crises.

That said, it is clear that the heightened expectation of an American counterstrike, even against the capital Tehran, put Iranian air defences on high alert. While I do not agree with Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who tweeted that the cause of the crash was human error due to American adventurism, the incident can still be seen as a warning that Trump’s opportunism comes with unforeseen consequences for the region and could lead to a significant loss of civilian lives.

The tragedy

The vast majority of those on board were Iranian citizens who lived abroad or foreign nationals of Iranian descent, many with exceptional talent and potential. In many ways, these members of the Iranian diaspora who maintained links to their homeland represented the best that Iran could have hoped for in building bridges with the West.

The tragic loss is a reminder of how deadly political and military escalations can be in the region. The airliner incident was preceded by a string of aggressive attacks and counterattacks in Iraq: The December 27 rocket attack on the K-1 base, which killed an American contractor, followed by the December 30 US strikes on positions of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs), which killed dozens, then the attempt to storm the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3 and the latest missile strikes on Iraqi military bases hosting US troops on January 8.

It is clear that the escalating tensions in the region have exacerbated its already high level of vulnerability and brought it to the brink of another conflict, with potentially devastating consequences for the region and the world.

The Middle East is a major transportation, trade, and financial hub; almost a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, while tens of millions of passengers transfer through airports in the Gulf, such as Dubai and Doha.

The tragic plane crash is testament to the fact that in this crowded region you cannot play politics with missiles and expect there to be no casualties.

Moving forward

Iran did the right thing to admit that its air defences shot down the Ukrainian aircraft. Yet this admission of guilt came after days of public denials. The Iranian authorities should have bought time by pledging to investigate the full facts rather than issuing an instant blanket denial that has so enraged the Iranian public.

At this point, Iran needs to demonstrate its commitment to openness to its own people and recognise that it can no longer pull the wool over their eyes. It also needs to demonstrate to the rest of the world that it is what it claims to be – a sovereign state which respects international law and values the sanctity of life. It has a golden opportunity to do so by allowing an independent investigation into what has happened.

There are internationally-established procedures in such cases and Iran should follow these to the letter. Ukraine itself has already been through the process after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. By following international rules, Iran would be seen as a country maintaining higher standards and commitment to international law – stepping on a higher moral ground than US President Donald Trump and his brazen threats of targeting Iranian cultural heritage and breaking international norms.

The opportunity

As tragic as it is, this catastrophic incident has unintentionally de-escalated the situation. Just a few days ago, Iran announced that the missiles fired on Iraqi bases hosting US troops were only the first wave of retaliatory strikes in response to the assassination of General Soleimani.

Many observers noted that the lack of casualties and limited damage from the missile strikes were a signal that Iran “shot to miss” and that no further retaliation would be forthcoming.

With protesters inside Iran decrying the ineptitude of the IRGC and international condemnation of the Iranian regime growing, the chances of a major state-sponsored attack on US interests in the Middle East have dwindled.

However, the possibility for revenge by many of Iran’s proxies remains high; on January 12, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that further retaliations would be coming soon.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution mobilised the masses to topple a repressive dictatorial regime, but it quickly became a chief source of anxiety for the Arab world – and it remains so today. Iran cannot exist in a permanent state of revolution and the Iranian people have clearly had enough of sectarian division and regional instability sown largely by a state within a state in the form of the IRGC.

Real change

Iran should use the opportunity, with Soleimani out of the picture, to rein in the Revolutionary Guards, end the era of proxy warfare, and curtail its misadventures throughout the Middle East. This would allow Iran and the US to sit together at the negotiating table and address the central issue driving tensions in the region – the collapsing nuclear deal and international sanctions.

Neither the US nor Iran has an interest in the situation escalating into a full-blown war. This is clear from reports that the two sides maintained secret communication channels through Swiss intermediaries throughout the crisis to avoid missteps that could have led to a major escalation.

The instinct of the US has been to rely on the Swiss as a trusted interlocutor with Iran ever since the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Yet in moving towards mediation to reach a bigger solution to the crisis, nations in the region with equidistance from all sides can play a valuable role.

After finding itself on the front line and fearing Iranian retaliation, Dubai has recently shifted to a more conciliatory tone vis-a-vis Tehran, which is a positive sign. It was also a positive sign that on the January 12, the Qatari Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Tehran and on January 15, his foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani travelled to Baghdad in a bid to calm international tensions and ensure that all parties respect Iraq’s sovereignty.

The experience of Qatar and Oman in mediating regional conflicts, including those involving the US and Iran, should be recognised and more space should be given for these regional actors to work towards diplomatic solutions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.