Engaging Iranian Dissidents, Or Catering to the Tory Base?

The Canadian government is renewing its support for a project, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre, to provide Iranian dissidents with a secure means of communicating and circumventing Iranian censorship. The project will also be extended to provide similar services to dissidents in other countries.

The idea of Western governments providing assistance to activists in authoritarian countries is a laudable one – but far from new. Throughout the Cold War, Western governments supported a variety of dissident causes and groups throughout the former Warsaw Pact.

Canada’s overall ability to help bring about change in Iran – and to stand with our allies on an important international file – is fatally weakened by the Tories’ approach.

This was done by means of a three-prong approach. First, there was direct support to various groups and individuals (though this was done carefully to avoid making their lives even more difficult). Second, official diplomacy with Communist countries put pressure on them to live up to their rhetorical promises of freedom of speech and religion in their societies. Finally, Western governments sought to get around censorship in these societies by broadcasting news and public information to them through means that were difficult to jam. These types of projects have continued after the Cold War in various countries around the world, including the Middle East in general and Iran in particular.

The Munk Centre project is a worthy one, but it is hardly original in its basic conception or objectives. The technical means by which it is being carried out are new, reflecting the fact that communications technologies have changed. What distinguishes Canada’s approach in Iran from previous projects is that the Canadian government has cut official ties with Iran. In effect, Canada has adopted two of three prongs usually employed by Western countries seeking to help dissident communities in authoritarian countries.

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This is a mistake. Western governments, even hardline anti-Communist ones, always believed that maintaining official ties with countries they were trying to influence was important. Being ‘on the ground’ gave access to information about how the dissidents were faring. It also gave access to the governments they were trying to influence to deliver messages of support for the dissidents. As well, it provided some tools whereby things that the Communist states valued (such as access to Western capital) could be curtailed if authoritarian governments went too far in repressing dissidents.

Of course, it would be naïve to say that repressive governments stopped being repressive just because of this engagement. But we now know that as the Cold War progressed through the 1970s and 80s and Communist economies stagnated (as Iran’s is doing today), those regimes were less likely to engage in the harshest forms of repression if they believed that diplomatic and economic consequences would result. We also now know that people within these countries who believed that change was necessary were able to use the pressure applied by the West to argue for moderation and reform. It took time – a long time –but these means helped to bring about change.

The Reagan administration was particularly adept at using such influence to moderate Communist behaviour toward dissidents. Ideologues at the time pressured Reagan to abandon most diplomacy with the Soviets but he always refused to do so, knowing that it was important to the success of his strategy for changing those societies.

Today, all of Canada’s major allies are adopting the three-prong strategy toward Iran. Even the U.S., long-estranged from Iran, recognizes that it is the only way to help those in Iran who want change. Only Canada stands outside this consensus.


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It is difficult to fathom why this is if one looks only at the foreign policy aspects of the problem. We know from long experience that completely cutting ties simply doesn’t work. But it does play very well to the Tories’ political base in Canada, and is likely the key reason why this approach has been adopted. Unlike Reagan, who did not listen to those urging him to take similar steps with Russia, the Harper government is only too happy to compromise Canada’s ability to affect a changing Iran for the sake of votes at home.

The Munk Centre project may have some impact. But Canada’s overall ability to help bring about change in Iran – and to stand with our allies on an important international file – is fatally weakened by the Tories’ approach.

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