Canada’s Iran Policy: ‘Reckless Rhetoric’ and More Out of Step Than Ever

by John Mundy

Published in the Globe and Mail, June 19, 2014

Canada has a dysfunctional relationship with Iran and our government is proud of it. That is the underlying message of Foreign Minister John Baird’s latest statements about Iran. At a time when Britain is re-opening its Iranian embassy, the United States is considering co-operation with Iran in Iraq and the international community is trying to strike a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, the Canadian government remains disengaged and hostile.

In the last two years, Canada’s relations with Iran have gone from bad to non-existent. In September, 2012, Canada suddenly suspended diplomatic relations with Iran. Our action was so unexpected that we set off a brief war scare because the international media thought Canada had been tipped off by Israel that it was going to attack.

We should return to Iran just as Britain decided to do this week when it announced that it would be re-opening its embassy there.

Almost exactly a year ago, our government tried to interfere with the Iranian presidential elections by using the University of Toronto as a platform for two important speeches against the Iranian government.

In his keynote address Mr. Baird had this to say about Iran: “The [Iranian] regime is hollow. It does not have the depth, the intellect, the humanity or the humility to bring about a better future for its people.”

Defence Minister Peter MacKay got even more personal. In his speech, he speculated about sending his Iranian-Canadian son back to Iran to fight. Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed to have no problem with this type of reckless rhetoric.

Last November, when Iran and the P5 plus 1 Group (United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) announced their interim nuclear agreement, our government said that it would not go along with its friends and allies by providing modest relief to Iran on economic sanctions. And yet the underlying principle of these international negotiations is the reciprocal exchange of concessions. The P5 plus 1 Group is offering Iran concessions on economic sanctions in return for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program. You cannot have one without the other – unless you would prefer confrontation to negotiation.

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Last week, Mr. Baird gave an important interview to this newspaper on the Iranian nuclear talks and wrote an article in Foreign Policy magazine on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s human-rights record.

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On the nuclear issue, Mr. Baird laid out Canada’s position which falls far short of what is commonly understood to be the P5 plus 1 Group’s offer to Iran. Not only does the Canadian government want Iran to destroy its centrifuge program, it appears not to be willing to say anything about offering reciprocal concessions on economic sanctions against Iran. This is a recipe for failure at the negotiating table.

Mr. Baird’s article in Foreign Policy reviewed President Rouhani’s record on human rights and it makes some important points. Human rights should not be overlooked as the international community seeks to re-engage Iran and Canada has rightly made human rights one of its priorities in Iran.

President Rouhani came to office last year promising to make changes in Iran’s human-rights record and as Mr. Baird noted, so far he has not delivered. His key promise, which Mr. Baird didn’t mention in his article even though it would have buttressed his argument, was to release Green Party members from jail. After then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s stolen election of 2009, which the Green Party under Mir-Hossein Mousavi probably won, there were mass political arrests in Iran including the arrest of Mr. Mousavi himself. President Rouhani has tried to negotiate his release but his domestic conservative political opponents have blocked him. On this issue Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has sided with the conservatives and against Mr. Rouhani.

President Rouhani faces the same type of domestic political conflict that destroyed the reformist government of then president Mohammad Khatami a decade ago. Despite Mr. Khatami’s mandate for change, conservative ideologues in Iran maintained control of Iran’s security services, judiciary and media and used their power to frustrate the president program. The same process is playing out today in Iran because these same ideologues do not see President Rouhani as one of their own; they see him and his project for re-engaging with the international community as a threat. There is little chance for human-rights reform in Iran if President Rouhani’s opening to the international community fails and Iran returns to an intransigent foreign policy.

Mr. Rouhani is a better politician than Mr. Khatami and has been able to keep his conservative opponents at bay while he conducts his international diplomacy. But no one should underestimate the political challenge that he faces in Iran. Our government is either unaware of these currents in domestic Iranian politics or uninterested, but our allies are engaged. This explains why Britain is willing to re-open its embassy in Tehran despite all the problems that have strained Anglo-Iranian relations.

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There is another problem with Foreign Minister Baird’s article. He makes no mention of the three Canadians who were unfairly jailed in Iran. Their names are Saeed Malekpour, Hossein Derakhshan and Hamid Ghassemi-Shall . When we suspended diplomatic relations with Iran almost two years ago, we abandoned these Canadians. Since then, Mr. Ghassemi-Shall has been released but the other two men remain at risk.

Mr. Baird’s article about human rights was the perfect place to make the case for the release of the other two Canadians. By not mentioning them, our Foreign Minister gives the impression that he doesn’t care about their fate.

This takes us to the heart of the problem with our government’s Iranian diplomacy. Former prime minister Joe Clark has used the phrase “lecture and leave” to describe our government’s approach to international diplomacy and there is no better example of this than Iran. Our government seems to think that advocacy for human rights in Iran and diplomatic engagement with its government are mutually exclusive. They are not. They go hand in hand. We should return to Iran just as Britain decided to do this week when it announced that it would be re-opening its embassy there.

It is time for Canada’s opposition parties to define an Iranian policy different from the current government’s approach and begin to realign Canadian policy more closely with our allies. Canada should return to Iran. If Britain can do it, Canada can do it too.

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