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Diplomatic crisis: Pressure builds on Iran as Western powers suggest it downed Ukraine plane

Key Points
  • Government officials from Australia, Britain, Canada and the U.S. believe it is likely the Kyiv-bound passenger plane was unintentionally struck by a stray Iranian missile, killing all 176 people on board.
  • "If the preliminary assessments prove accurate, the diplomatic fallout for Iran will be significant in the short term," analysts at Eurasia Group said in a research note.
Video footage appears to capture the moment a plane was shot down over Iran

The leaders of Australia, Canada and the U.K. all believe evidence suggests an Iranian missile brought down a Ukrainian passenger plane earlier this week, killing all 176 people on board, with analysts expressing concern that intensifying international pressure against Tehran will trigger a diplomatic crisis.

Most of the passengers on Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 were from Iran and Canada. Other passengers came from countries including Sweden and Ukraine.

The crash occurred Wednesday morning, a few hours after Iran launched ballistic attacks on military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq, prompting a theory that the Kyiv-bound passenger plane may have been unintentionally struck by a stray missile.

Government officials from Australia, Britain, Canada and the U.S. have since said they believe this theory is likely, based on new information.

Iran has denied the plane was brought down by a missile.

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"If the preliminary assessments prove accurate, the diplomatic fallout for Iran will be significant in the short term," analysts at Eurasia Group said in a research note published Thursday.

Analysts at the political risk consultancy suggested Tehran seemed to earn a "good deal of international sympathy and solidarity" after the U.S. killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani last week — with many "quietly grateful" the Islamic Republic did not respond more forcefully.

But, "the shootdown will jeopardize that diplomatic goodwill, especially if the evidence proves overwhelming and Iran continues to stridently deny it."

'Pretty rough neighborhood'

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Iran's Civil Aviation Authority head, Ali Abedzadeh, said Tehran wanted to download black box recordings itself.

It if needed help to decode the messages — which could reportedly take one or two months — Iran could ask for help from Russia, Canada, France or Ukraine, Abedzadeh said.

Sixty-three Canadians were among the victims in the crash of the flight, which lost contact with air traffic controllers five minutes after takeoff from Tehran on Wednesday morning, officials said.

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference on Thursday that he had "intelligence from multiple sources including our allies and our own intelligence."

"The evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile," Trudeau added. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued similar statements.

Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012 and, despite pledges to reengage, Trudeau has not yet sought to revive formal relations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the theory that a stray missile may have struck Flight 752 could not be confirmed yet.

President Donald Trump said Thursday he does not believe a mechanical failure caused the crash.

"It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood," Trump said. "Someone could have made a mistake."

'One or two years' to complete flight investigation

Under international law, the country in which the crash occurs controls the investigation, and because the plane was U.S.-made, federal investigators and Boeing, the plane's manufacturer, would normally be involved.

However, fraught relations between the U.S. and Iran could complicate the U.S. government's willingness or ability to send personnel to the country.

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"It is quite tragic that these people were all murdered but, if anything, it creates this image of the Iranian military being trigger-happy and not being overly concerned about deaths of civilians," Frank Lavin, former U.S. under secretary of Commerce for international trade, told CNBC's "Capital Connection" on Friday.

"So, if anything, I think it is going to subdue the Iranian military for the short run," Lavin said.

An Iranian official told Reuters on Friday that it could take "one or two years" to complete an investigation into the flight.

"Iran will face intense political and economic pressure to cooperate with international aviation authorities, and we expect Tehran will eventually accept Western investigators," analysts at Eurasia Group said.

— CNBC's Leslie Josephs and Dan Mangan contributed to this report.