Iran has admitted it brought the plane down. It must now heed calls for swift access to the crash site

If the lessons of past tragedies tell us anything it is that the quest for answers will last as long as impediments to investigation exist

Flowers and candles are placed in front of portraits of the flight crew members of the Ukrainian 737-800 plane that crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, at a memorial inside Borispil international airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says that Iran must take further steps following its admission that one of its missiles shot down Ukrainian civilian airliner. He also expressed hope for the continuation of the crash investigation without delay. A team of Ukrainian investigators is in Iran. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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Airlines are proud to claim that travel on modern fleets is statistically safer than road journeys. In 2017 there were no commercial airliner crashes.

Yet with horrifying regularity passenger jets come down during moments of heightened international tensions. As happened on Wednesday when the Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 was shot out of the sky above Tehran with all 176 perishing on board.

Such was the global anxiety over the Iran-US confrontation, the news took a long time to sink in.

The loss of the flight was at first presented as a technical issue. The news was subservient to questions over the continuing cycle of retaliation between Tehran and Washington.

Officials in Tehran must act swiftly to ease concerns over a cover-up since Wednesday morning

Tehran has only days later admitted that its armed forces shot down the aircraft due to "human error", after insisting that engine failure caused the incident. The country's ambassador to the UK apologised yesterday for a belligerent press briefing in which he insisted there was no human error involved.

The statement of responsibility came after the true horror of the loss of life was at last sinking in. The tragedy ranks alongside the 1988 incident in which the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down Iranian Airlines 655 during a period of tension between Washington and Tehran.

There will hopefully now be a clear prioritising of the humanitarian considerations. A pause in the exchange of insults in the aftermath of mass death should now ensue.

Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, has tried to focus minds on the need to recover the bodies and gain consular access for grieving relatives. With 138 of those on the flight bound for Canada, his country has suffered an immense blow. A total of 57 passengers were Canadian, even as reports earlier stated 63.

Access to the black boxes will remain a huge issue. Fears stirred by the Iranian regime's orders to bulldoze over the sites of the crash linger despite yesterday's announcement.

The personal stories of those who died only came to light as the week ended. The young couple aged 25 and 26 who had only married seven days earlier. The man who lived because his ticket was ruled invalid but lost his wife on board the plane. The children that perished with their parents.

In a microcosm of the tragedy, the Canadian province of Alberta has suffered a disproportionate loss, particularly its academic life.

There is still a danger of a bitter fight to control the narrative. The downing of Malaysian Airline MH17 over the Russian offensive in Ukraine has left a toxic legacy. There the perpetrators claimed fake news surrounding allegations of responsibility. Ugly misrepresentations successfully muddied the waters in the wake of an attack.

The toxic history of the Iranian relationship with the US informs the situation.

Earlier in the week US President Donald Trump invoked the 52 US embassy hostages and warned Tehran against retaliation for the drone strike that killed the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s barbed retort to the White House tweet now casts a long shadow. Mr Rouhani angrily replied that the touchstone for Iran was 290, the number of passengers killed after the Vincennes incident in the Arabian Gulf.

Having admitted responsibility, Iran should heed the calls for swift access to the site of the crash. Ambiguities over the integrity of the black boxes can only be resolved by outside and independent inspectors. Allowing for the highest standards of investigation is the way forward.

The mourning relatives are already in a grieving process. If the lessons of past tragedies tell us anything it is that the quest for answers will last as long as impediments to investigation exist.

Iran already faces lawsuits around the world over its state-sponsorship of terror and policies of hostage taking. Courts in the US and elsewhere have found the Iranian government culpable for needless loss of life.

Officials in Tehran must act swiftly to ease concerns over a cover-up since Wednesday morning.

Jim Swire, a Scottish doctor was the father of Flora who was killed along with 268 others in the 1988 Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing that was laid at the door of Col Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya. Writing a quarter of a century after the disaster, Mr Swire described his daughter, who was flying to America to meet her boyfriend, as "a seeker after truth". It was an idealised image that shaped his own life as he tirelessly campaigned to established how the bombing was carried out.

Mr Swire pointed to other devastating incidents that had taken place in Britain to highlight the indefatigability of those left behind to find out why their relatives died. “If you look at terrible UK disasters – Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army trials, the Hillsborough disaster and also Lockerbie, it is the denial of truth to the victims that is the common thread,” he wrote. “So, indeed, there is a thread and that thread is truth.”

A new raft of families must not face the same ordeal over what happened in Tehran on the night of January 8.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National