Amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, one question loomed over the crash of a Boeing passenger jet in Iran on Wednesday: Who will investigate?
Everyone on board the Kyiv-bound Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 was killed in the crash shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, including many Iranians and Canadians, among other nationalities. Iranian officials blamed the crash on technical difficulties. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Embassy in Iran initially published a statement that ruled out terrorism, but it was later taken down.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the public “to refrain from speculating and making uncorroborated theories.”
Past crashes involving U.S. plane maker Boeing’s aircraft have compelled U.S. foes to overcome their resentments and allow American experts access to crash sites or to crucial evidence, because those countries lacked the capabilities or experience to lead complex investigations alone.
But amid the spike in hostilities in the Middle East, Iran and the United States appeared far from that on Wednesday morning. Only hours before the crash, Iran had launched ballistic missiles at bases housing U.S. military personnel in Iraq, in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani last week.
Iran said Wednesday it would not hand over the jet’s black box to Boeing, according to the semiofficial Mehr News Agency. The quick rejection of assistance likely also signaled a lack of willingness to cooperate with other U.S. authorities, such as the United States’ National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
It is also unclear whether the NTSB, other U.S. agencies or Boeing would be willing or able to take part in an Iranian investigation, even if requested by Tehran. (The United States is diplomatically represented by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.)
The head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Ali Abedzadeh, said it was so far unclear which country would analyze the black box, according to Mehr. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said he and his Iranian counterpart have agreed “to coordinate further actions of our investigation groups closely to determine the cause of the terrible plane crash,” according to a tweet, cited by Reuters.
But it’s unclear if Ukraine possesses all the capabilities needed to aid with the investigation. Germany, for instance, declined an Ethiopian request to analyze the black box of a crashed Ethiopian Airlines plane because German authorities felt they lacked the necessary preparation and skills.
European lawmakers were among the first to call for an international investigation on Wednesday. “This has to be examined internationally,” Omid Nouripour, a foreign affairs spokesman for Germany’s Green Party, told broadcaster NTV.
The engines of the crashed Ukraine International Airlines plane were reportedly produced by a company partially based in France.
After the Ethiopian Airlines crash last year, for instance, Ethiopia opted to approach multiple European nations with a request to analyze the plane’s black box. French investigators agreed to do so in the end, as they have particularly extensive experience with some of the most modern Airbus planes that are manufactured in France.
France’s analysis of the Ethiopian Airlines black box appeared significant at the time because the crashed plane was a Boeing 737 Max 8, and not an Airbus jet.
The French agency rejected claims that it was seeking to create a competitive advantage for Boeing competitor Airbus by assigning blame to the U.S. plane maker. The results of such analyses — including when U.S. authorities provide assistance to foreign states — are usually secret and can only be released by the country officially in charge of the investigation.
According to Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, states in which an accident occurs are responsible for the investigation, but “the NTSB may designate a U.S. Accredited Representative and appoint advisors to carry out the Obligations, receive the Entitlements, provide Consultation, and receive Safety Recommendations from the state of occurrence.” Iran ratified the convention in 1950.
Other parties to that convention have in the past opted to set differences with the United States aside and allow private or official U.S. representatives to be involved.
For example, the crash of a 39-year-old Boeing 737 after takeoff from Havana last year came amid deteriorating relations between the Trump administration and Cuba. Still, Cuban officials notified the NTSB, which appointed a representative.
Only one passenger had survived the crash, and 112 people died. The Cuban-led commission — supported by U.S. and Mexican officials — later contradicted prior conclusions and argued that errors by the plane’s crew “in the calculations of weight and balance” were to blame.