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What motivated Iran to come clean

Editor's Note: (Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @WorldAffairsPro. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN. )

(CNN) After three days of vehement denials, Iran admitted that it mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner hours after it launched a missile attack on US troops in Iraq to retaliate against the US killing of Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani.

In doing so, Iranian authorities have done something the Russian government has never mustered the courage to do.

Michael Bociurkiw

Many commentators seem to have overlooked this fact in the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy that killed all 176 people aboard Ukrainian International Airlines (UIA) Flight 752 on Wednesday. And they shouldn't.

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people. More than five years later, the Kremlin has yet to acknowledge any responsibility for the tragic downing of the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Iran's startling admission comes after repeated denials that a missile struck the aircraft shortly after it took from Tehran's airport. It is very likely authorities in Tehran felt they could no longer maintain theories of a technical failure and other lines of deniability in the face of overwhelming evidence gathered by western intelligence agencies. Aside from the satellite technology which was used to prove the missile theory, there was video evidence posted on social media indicating that an object struck the aircraft.

In the complex calculations that went into the regime's decision to go public, Iranian authorities must have weighed the effect on anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the country for weeks. The protests, which were sparked by steep hikes in gas prices, are still ongoing despite what Amnesty International described as a "bloody clampdown" from the government.

Many Iranians displayed their anger at the government on Saturday, with crowds of students calling the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps "the people's shame."

Tehran treading a fine line

That Iran owned up to bringing down the airplane is extremely unusual for a regime that has a well-known track record of deception, manipulation and brutality. But in making the carefully-worded admission, it seems Tehran initially tried to shift at least part of the blame on UIA, as well as on the United States for its "military adventurism."

The Iranian military issued a statement on Saturday that said the UIA flight took a sharp, unexpected turn that brought it near sensitive airspace — a claim which strained credulity as the aircraft was using the same corridor as other civilian airliners. Hours later, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps walked back the claim.

UIA has faced criticism for flying over Tehran shortly after Iran launched missiles strikes on US troops in neighboring Iraq. Hours before the UIA flight took off, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibited American pilots and airlines from flying over Iran. While international airlines are not bound by orders from the FAA, common sense would have dictated that the Ukrainian airline avoid the area all together.

Whatever the case, Iran's civil aviation authorities, knowing the threat level and that air defense installations were active, should have issued warnings and grounded all flights.

A new age for authoritarian regimes

It is a new and uncomfortable era for regimes that rely on manipulation, lies and terror. Crowdsourced video footage, intrepid reporting, crash scene photos, and open-source flight tracking played a role in building an international consensus online before Iran came clean. No doubt China and Russia are watching this play out in real time and taking notes so they can clamp down on unflattering information before it goes viral.

The newfound honesty of the Iranian regime, however, should not be taken as a sign that they have suddenly turned over a new leaf and will behave as more responsible members of the international community.

Senior Iranian government officials, to project a more human face, do seem to be learning how to leverage social media for their own advantage. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted an emoji in an attempt to convey how heartbroken he was by the loss of life from the crash.

"When was the last time you saw a foreign minister from that part of the world use the broken heart emoji on Twitter? There is clearly an attempt to appeal to the social media world and influence the conversation online," social media strategist Lina Duque told me.

It seems they are learning in real time.

The road ahead

Besides dozens of Iranians, the flight included passengers from Canada, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Germany. Now that Iran has owned up to the cause of the crash, authorities should clear the way for international investigators to enter the country and get down to the nitty gritty work of gathering and analyzing evidence. It is even more crucial for Iranian authorities to treat the victims' bodies with dignity and allow grieving relatives to be reunited with their loved ones.

On Saturday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said three visas had been issued for members of its rapid response team and lead members were expected to arrive in Tehran soon. While Trudeau acknowledged Iran's admission as "an important step," he said, "many more steps need to be taken" and stressed the importance of a "full and complete investigation."

He added, "Even in a moment of heightened tensions this should have never had happened."

Trudeau said the relatives of the victims deserve compensation. "Many of the people on the plane were students or young professionals. Many may have been supporting their families financially. So, justice and compensation will be important for them," said Amanda Ghahremani, an international criminal lawyer working with survivors of torture and universal jurisdictional crimes.

From my own first-hand conversations with relatives of the victims of the 2014 crash of MH17 in Ukraine, I know family members bear the financial burden of visiting the Netherlands to attend memorial events or meet with the public prosecutor ahead of the criminal trial in The Hague this March. Many are still looking for closure and justice, which they have never gotten from Russia. While Iran has apologized for their deadly mistake, relatives of the victims of the UIA Flight 752 need to prepare for the long-haul.

Most importantly, as I told CNN's Brooke Baldwin, the international community needs to take immediate steps to prevent the downing of another civilian airliner over conflict zones where airlines need to avoid or divert around completely.

The lessons learned from this tragedy and the 2014 MH17 disaster should prompt a complete reevaluation among airlines and civil aviation authorities around the world. How high a human death toll are we willing to tolerate before concrete and lasting actions are taken?