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With second trip to Tehran, feds inch closer to re-establishing diplomatic ties with Iran

The October talks signal progress, but Canada is a long way off from reopening the embassy it closed in 2012.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland met with Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the September United Nations General Assembly in New York a few weeks before a Global Affairs delegation travelled to Tehran for Canada's second official visit after severing ties in 2012. The Hill Times photo by Andrew Meade

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017 12:00 AM

In mid-October Canadian officials travelled to Tehran for the second set of talks with Iranian officials since Canada cut ties with the country five years ago, possibly signalling forward momentum in the fraught relationship between the two countries. But officials, advocates, and former diplomats suggest Canada is still is a long way off from re-establishing those ties.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) said during the 2015 election campaign he hoped Canada “would be able to reopen its mission” and he was “fairly certain that there are ways to re-engage.”

Though Canada had closed its embassy before—most notably in 1980 for eight years following the 1979 “Canadian Caper” in which it housed six American diplomats until they were evacuated, loosely portrayed in the 2012 film Argo—former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2012 decided to pull diplomats, order Iranian officials to leave Canada, and cut all ties, in part because of what he said were safety and security concerns for staff, ongoing human rights violations and Iran’s threats to Israel.

Two years after Mr. Trudeau made those campaign comments, the Iranian Canadian Congress said the pace of re-engagement has been too slow but the recent meetings are “positive signs.”

  

“We are hopeful but there needs to be real action because there are some barriers in the path of re-engagement and we are concerned that with the change in U.S. policy toward Iran with President Donald Trump, it may affect Canada’s policy toward Iran as well,” said congress president Bijan Ahmadi, adding the main hurdle is Iran’s “unconventional” designation under the Canada’s State Immunity Act as a country that can be sued and foreign assets seized.

Global Affairs officials made their first visit to Iran in May without any accompanying announcement and five months later quietly did the same. A government source said Canada still needs to “hold Iran to account on a huge number of issues” so Mr. Trudeau’s promise to re-engage doesn’t necessarily mean Canada should be “rushing” to open an embassy.

The trip to Tehran lasted a few days in mid-October, the source said, attended by a handful of Canadian officials who met with senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On Oct. 16 Iranian news sources first wrote of the “continuation of efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations,” citing Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi.

Global Affairs responded to questions in a statement that didn’t offer any sense of a timeline, cautioning that Canada continues to “oppose Iran’s support for terrorist organizations, its threats toward Israel, its support for the Assad regime, and its ballistic missile program.”

  

Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi said consular concerns due to the lack of diplomatic ties with Iran affect many of his constituents. Photograph courtesy of Ali Ehsassi

“We believe that open and frank dialogue, especially when we disagree, is the best way to effectively address security issues, hold Iran to account on human rights, and advance consular cases,” said spokesman Adam Austen by email.

“Engagement is about holding countries to account, advancing Canadian consular cases, and promoting human rights.”

He didn’t address questions regarding Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s (University-Rosedale, Ont.) discussions with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at September’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, as reported by Iranian news sources.

Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi (Willowdale, Ont.) said the two countries face “a lengthy list of challenges” and that after the election, relations were “not off to a good start” with the June 2016 arrest of Concordia University professor Homa Hoodfar, who was eventually released after 112 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

  

That was the same prison where Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi snapped pictures, and for that offence was tortured and killed in 2003 by security forces.

 

Iranian diaspora in Canada left without options, says MP

Mr. Ehsassi’s riding is among four in Ontario, according to the Iranian Canadian Congress review of 2011 census numbers, that contain the most people with Iranian heritage. The community represents the fourth largest immigrant group to arrive in Canada between 2011 and 2016, with 42,070, according to the 2016 census. The census also reported 210,405 identify themselves as having Iranian heritage, a number the ICC says it believes is higher.

And Mr. Ehsassi said they represent the largest diaspora community in Canada that doesn’t have access to consular services, creating “a whole host of challenges” for families caught on both sides. Iranians wishing to visit family in Canada must “trek to Istanbul” to try and get a visa while Canadians in Iran can’t get aid.

“They’re still exploring technical details to see if we can bridge those differences,” said Mr. Ehsassi, adding he thinks the meeting signals the countries are “past the preliminary discussions” to see if “they can iron out their differences” but it “will require some time.”

Canada also has significant political and economic interests in the region it should consider, Mr. Ahmadi said.

“Not having dialogue and diplomatic channel with a major power in the Middle East is not a smart policy,” he said, adding human rights abuses haven’t historically ended relations with other offending nations.

“If we want to make that a variable, a deciding factor in our foreign affairs policy we will have to cut diplomatic relations with several countries.”

Former ambassador to Iran, Michel de Salaberry, agreed Canadian presence in Iran is “a sign that things may be moving,” but progress to date has likely been slow “for good reason if there’s no easy answer.”

While Mr. de Salaberry said any government “would be sensitive to the desire” of hundreds of thousands who want ties established, it has to “weigh that against reaction” of Canadians upset by what it would mean for families of victims of the regime and there’s no “easy way out of the dilemma.”

Mr. de Salaberry called the decision to close the embassy in Tehran “the right thing to do” but said severing all ties was the wrong choice and prevented any hope of Canadian impact on the outcome of difficult cases.

“A big nation like Iran is not one you can decide no longer exists…even though the government has committed crimes, that’s not a reason to not see it anymore,” he said, echoing the same assessment made two years before by Canada’s last ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, who could not be reached for comment. “By breaking diplomatic relations we’re giving up the possibility of a negotiated outcome.”

Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Photograph courtesy of Colin Robertson.

A Conservative-sponsored Senate bill now in the Upper Chamber at third reading that proposes more non-nuclear sanctions would likely stall any efforts, several said.

In February 2016, Global Affairs announced it was amending some of the sanctions against Iran, “including lifting the broad ban on financial services, imports and exports.” All imports to and exports from Iran were banned in 2013. The changes came after Iran complied with a 2015 deal struck between the country and China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to roll back its nuclear program.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said he thinks Canada is moving towards re-establishing relations, but it will be “a long waltz, not a short tango” toward that conclusion.

“There are trade opportunities as well as geopolitical considerations,” he noted by email, and if Canada wants to have influence, it needs to be there.

“But there are human rights issues that are unresolved and issues around consular cases, dual nationals, child custody that we will want some assurances,” Mr. Robertson said. “Should we be there? Yes. Diplomatic relations are not a Good Housekeeping seal of approval but a means of doing business even with noxious regimes. That said, we need to move with care.”

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times