The Shift to Diplomacy: A New Chapter in Canadian-Iranian Relations

When conflict arises among two parties, one can turn their back in a show of protest, or push for dialogue that allows for such issues to be resolved. The newly elected Liberal government of Canada has been leaning towards the latter position when addressing the country’s diplomatic stance towards the Islamic Republic of Iran – a divergence from the previous government’s position to sever diplomatic ties with the country.

In September of 2012, John Baird, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada’s previous Government, announced that Canada would no longer maintain diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran as a result of their failure to comply with a variety of international conventions, their support of the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War, and a fear of Iran posing a threat to Canada’s national security. The embassies of both countries were subsequently shut down. Consular services for Iran were reverted to the Pakistani embassy in Washington, DC and to the Canadian embassy in Turkey for Canada. Making access to such services significantly more difficult and sometimes unobtainable.

The now vacant Iranian embassy in Ottawa.

The now vacant Iranian embassy in Ottawa. http://bit.ly/2cLKzJr

Today, with the arrival of the Liberal Party of Canada as the nation’s new government and the passage of the Iran nuclear deal, the circumstances for evaluating Canada’s position towards Iran have changed. This has been reflected in the Canadian government’s engagement with Iran in establishing economic ties between the two countries. The government’s attitude towards the importance of forming a relationship between Ottawa and Tehran has been shown by Foreign Minister Stephan Dion who stated, “Canada’s severing of ties with Iran had no positive consequences for anyone: not for Canadians, not for the people of Iran, not for Israel, and not for global security,” in reference to Canada’s lack of involvement in the allied effort to put an end to Iran’s nuclear program.

Civil organizations have also voiced their support for diplomacy as a means of change. Recently the Iranian Canadian Congress issued a petition to the government of Canada calling for the reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Iran. This petition was supported by Liberal MP Majid Jowhari, who stated, “an absence of diplomatic representation hurts the people of both countries,” continuing the message previously put forth by Minister Dion.

Although there has been support for rekindling the relationship between the two nations, this shift in policy has not been free of criticism. The Conservative Party’s critic for foreign affairs,  Peter Kent, stands in opposition to Dion’s vision of reengagement and has stated, “I still believe we should isolate Iran, I believe at all costs, given all their sins and their unwillingness to even suggest that they will reform their ways. I favour continued isolation until they do.” Kent is not alone in his position; others support the isolation of the Iran, citing the state’s poor human rights record and their hostility towards Canadian allied countries, especially Israel.

These contrasts in opinion highlight a dilemma: whether to isolate those who dissent from international expectations, or to bring about dialogue in an effort to solve the issues at hand. Although severing diplomatic ties may be an effective means of symbolizing one’s opposition to a state’s practices, it eradicates the channels through which a state effectively utilizes its power and negotiates its interests.

One way in which a state exercises its power is through economic sanctions which are a central method of coercion from a group of states towards a rogue or opposing state. This was demonstrated in the United Nation’s Security Council Resolution 1984, where all the permanent members supported a sanction against the Iranian state until it complied with international regulation surrounding its nuclear program. The critical issue arises after sanctions are put in place. Canada under the Harper government decided to place sanctions on Iran until the country complied with its demands or collapsed. However, the permanent members of the Security Council eventually opened talks with Iran to come to a mutually beneficial agreement that led to the lifting of sanctions, Iranian compliance with international nuclear regulation, and reintegration of Iran into the world economy. Canada’s method of invoking change was weak and ineffective. Rather than discussing compromise, they set out unrealistic expectations to be met without exception. The result of their policy was significant economic and social hardships for Iranians in Canada and Iran, as well as compromising Canada’s participation in solving an important international dispute.

In addition, the previous Conservative government’s preference of isolation rather than diplomacy towards Iran puts Canada in a position where it is unable to effectively push for its interests, and instead is forced to rely on other countries to speak on its behalf. A current case of this is the imprisonment and recent release of the Iranian-Canadian professor, Homa Hoodfar, who was jailed in Iran since June 6th, 2016 and just released at the end of September. With a lack of formal channels amongst the two countries Canada was reliant on Oman, who holds diplomatic ties with Iran, to conduct negotiations on its behalf. The current government of Canada has admitted that this made the process to release Hoodfar and other Canadian prisoners significantly more difficult. Canada is best represented by itself; the need to go through a middleman in order to conduct its affairs makes its pursuits less effective and its success reliant on the capabilities and desire of other countries’ help. James George, the former Canadian ambassador to Iran, has also stated that the closure of the embassy means that the country does not have “ears on the ground,” potentially cutting its ability to be ahead of the events that occur within Iran – a regional power in the Middle East. For example, before the 1979 revolution, George became aware of the instability of the Shah’s power and the risk of his fall as a result of the information George gathered while in the country. Ironically, by cutting relations with Iran partly due to the country being “the most significant threat to global security,” Canada consequently lost access to important information in regards to the region and international security issues.

Diplomacy is of great importance in advancing Canada’s interests and having the country play a role in solving international disputes. Isolation hurts both Canada and the nations it is in conflict with, without creating a means for progress and mutual success. The newly elected Canadian government’s shift in policy marks a new chapter in Iranian-Canadian relations. However, the Liberal government is faced with the difficult task of fostering a relationship while holding Iran accountable for its actions both domestic and abroad.