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Freeland’s office says ‘any discussions’ with Iran will be solely centred on Maryam Mombeini

By Neil Moss      

But Peter Jones, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said Chrystia Freeland's position could limit the government's ability to engage with Iran.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, pictured in this file photo on the Hill. Her spokesperson, Adam Austen, told The Hill Times, 'The topic of any discussions with Iran, until such a time Maryam Mombeini is allowed to leave, will be her case.' The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office says the minister won’t be talking to Iran about improving Canadian-Iranian relations until dual citizen Maryam Mombeini is allowed to the leave Iran.

Relations with Iran are top-of-mind following U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 8 decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal earlier this month, and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) committed to restoring diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran during the 2015 election. Iran and Canada have not had an ambassadorial relationship since 2012, when Canada, under the leadership of former prime minister Stephen Harper, closed its embassy in Tehran and expelled Iranian diplomats from Ottawa.

“The topic of any discussions with Iran, until such a time Maryam Mombeini is allowed to leave will be her case,” Adam Austen, press secretary to Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.), told The Hill Times on May 16.

Ms. Mombeini, 55, has been stuck in Iran since March, after being stopped by security at Tehran’s international airport as she tried to return to Canada, following the death of her husband, Iranian-Canadian professor and environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami, who had been imprisoned in an Iran before his death in the Evin prison in February. He was a visiting scholar at the University of Lethbridge in 2017 and a professor of sociology at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran.

Iranian authorities ruled the death of Ms. Mombeini’s husband a suicide. He was accused of espionage.

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told The Canadian Press that the “claim of a suicide is highly questionable.”

On May 17, the centre reported that Ms. Mombeini was recently hospitalized for three days after “exhibiting symptoms of a nervous breakdown.”

In a March statement, Ms. Freeland said Canada “will continue to demand answers” from Iran on the circumstances surrounding Prof. Seyed-Emami’s death.

When Ms. Mombeini tried to leave Iran and travel to Vancouver with her two adult sons, she was stopped by Iranian authorities and stripped of her passport. She told her sons to leave Iran without her. All three are dual Canadian-Iranian citizens, previously having lived in Toronto and Vancouver, and had been living in Tehran. One of her sons told The Globe and Mail in April that Iran has opened a national security case against Ms. Mombeini claiming that she is “complicit” in the same espionage allegations that led to the imprisonment of her husband.

Peter Jones, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said Ms. Freeland’s position could limit the government’s ability to press Iran on Ms. Mombeini’s case.

“If you are trying to reopen discussions and reopen a broader relationship, to then say, ‘We are not going to talk about anything until we talk about’ [Ms. Mombeini’s case] potentially limits your ability to do that,” said Prof. Peter Jones, an expert on Iran, Middle East security, and backchannel diplomacy, in an interview with The Hill Times last week.

The Canadian government’s focus on Ms. Mombeini’s case will “probably not” lead to a resolution, he said, as “the Iranians have shown themselves to be pretty immune from that kind of pressure.” He said Ms. Freeland’s focus on Ms. Mombeini is a response to domestic pressure, and “the Iranians, probably, understand that.”

“If the moment came when it were possible to fully restore relations and have embassies, and the Iranians felt it was in their interest to do that, they might give something on [Ms. Mombeini’s case]. But in the meantime, it’s probably unlikely,” said Prof. Jones.

The reopening of Canadian and Iranian embassies isn’t a priority for either country “given all the other things that are going on right now,” said Prof. Jones, and he doesn’t expect it’ll happen “anytime soon.”

Iran has said it will not restore relations until the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act is repealed or changed, noted Prof. Jones. The Harper-era bill names Iran as a sponsor of terrorism and allows victims of terrorism to sue Iran in Canadian court.

In 2016, Stéphane Dion, then-minister of Foreign Affairs and now-Canadian Ambassador to Germany and Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe, said at a conference at the University of Ottawa that severing ties with Iran has had “no positive consequences for anyone.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) told The Hill Times that she thinks it’s “very important” for Canada to reopen its embassy in Tehran.

“If you don’t have an embassy in Iran then you can’t have an ambassador, Ken Taylor, smuggle six Americans out of Iran,” Ms. May said, referring to the joint rescue of six U.S. diplomats by the Canadian government and the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May calls former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s endorsement of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal ‘inappropriate.’ The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Just because Canada and Iran do not see eye-to-eye on many issues does not mean that the two countries should not have a diplomatic relationship, she said, as Canada has embassies in many countries that its ideologically opposed to.

Ms. May said she was “duped” when Canada made the decision to close its embassy in Tehran, as she had been under the impression it was a short-term, temporary closure.

On May 8, Mr. Trump fulfilled a campaign promise and withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or as it’s more colloquially known the ‘Iran deal.’

The deal, an agreement between Iran, all P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and the European Union on Iran’s nuclear program, curbed the development of Iran’s nuclear weapon capabilities in exchange for lifting economic sanctions against Tehran. It was agreed to in 2015, during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Despite the U.S.’s withdrawal, Iran has announced it will stay in the deal, as have France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

In response to Mr. Trump’s decision, Ms. Freeland said in a May 8 statement that, “Canada regrets that the United States has decided to withdraw from the JCPOA, particularly given that, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran continues to implement its JCPOA commitments.”

Thomas Juneau, professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a strategic analyst covering the Middle East for the Department of National Defence from 2003 to 2014, told The Hill Times he agrees that the JCPOA should be supported, but said he thinks the Canadian government’s response was “timid and cautious,” suggesting it may have been aimed at placating the U.S.

Prof. Juneau said he thinks Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal is a “mistake” and there “will be serious negative consequences.”

While Canada historically doesn’t “like to choose between the United States and our international values,” Prof. Jones said “this may be a time where we are going to [have to] choose.”

“If we [Canada] say that we support the JCPOA, there are few concrete things we can do to engage with Iran and trying to open an embassy is one of those very few,” Prof. Juneau said.

Ms. May said she hopes Canada will do more to help other allies work to keep the JCPOA alive, but didn’t criticize the government’s response so far because she thinks it’s “quite likely” that Canada will do more.

On May 9, Mr. Harper endorsed Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA in an ad in The New York Times paid by the Friends of Israel Initiative, an international think-tank. The decision was also endorsed by former Conservative foreign affairs minister John Baird, former Australian prime minister John Howard, and former first minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble.

Prof. Jones and Prof. Juneau both said Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird’s support for the withdrawal won’t hurt any potential future Canadian-Iranian relationship because their views on Iran are already well-known.

“What they did was politically quite symbolic, somewhat unusual for a former Canadian prime minister and minister of foreign affairs to take such a clear stance against the current government, but at the same time, entirely consistent with what they had been saying and doing over the years,” Prof. Juneau said.

Ms. May called Mr. Harper’s endorsement “inappropriate,” but said it has no bearing on Canadian-Iranian relations as long as the Liberal government makes it clear to Iran that it doesn’t share their position.

Canada’s disengagement with Iran recently came up during debate in the Senate over Saskatchewan Conservative Senator David Tkachuk’s 2016 bill, S-219, which proposed unilaterally strengthening non-nuclear sanctions on Iran in response to human rights violations and terrorism support.

In 2016, the Canadian government announced it would lift economic sanctions, except for exports, financing, and assistance that aid in the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear-related goods, against Iran following the United Nations Security Council’s decision to lift some of its sanctions against Iran after the IAEA announced that Iran had met its commitments under the JCPOA.

S-219, which was defeated on May 9, called for the creation of an annual report by the minister of Foreign Affairs on Iran-supported terrorism and human rights violations; sanctions for the holding company under the control of Iran’s Supreme Leader (Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order, EIKO), and any individuals named in the report who are believed to be terrorists, supporters of terrorist activity, or human rights violators; guarantee that Canada’s sanction system would not be lessened until two consecutive annual reports showed no “credible evidence” of terrorism activity of the incitement of hatred and “significant progress” is made on human rights violations; and a requirement that the minister of Public Safety consider whether to list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group under the Canadian Criminal Code.

During debate in the Senate in October 2017, Independent B.C. Senator Yuen Pau Woo, who’s now head of the Independent Senators Group, said, “At the heart of Bill S-219 is the implicit rejection of the 2015 United Nations P5+1 deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

“The bill, in essence, asks us to stop talking to the Iranian government, to disengage with them until certain improvements in their behaviour can be documented and observed by us,” said Independent Ontario Senator Ratna Omidvar, who came from Canada in 1981 from Iran, during debate on Nov. 30, 2017.

“[Canada’s tools are] persuasion, advocacy and engagement, loudly when we need to, softly and with diplomacy when called upon, because diplomacy and engagement go hand in hand. Engagement leads to conversation, even when you disagree. Engagement may lead to university or cultural exchanges, which are often a soft entry using soft power as a tool for change,” said Sen. Omidvar.

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