The Liberal government says it will soon begin lifting some sanctions imposed on Iran and will gradually implement its campaign pledge of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Tehran.
This is sound policy: It is in Canada’s interest to regain its foothold in Iran on diplomatic, commercial and strategic grounds. Being back in Tehran will provide Ottawa with valuable eyes and ears on the ground; it will better position Canada to develop trade with one of the Middle East’s largest economies; and it will allow the government to develop channels of communication with a key regional power.
But reopening Canada’s embassy in Tehran will be much easier said than done: The previous Conservative government booby-trapped relations with Iran.
Under former prime minister Stephen Harper, Canada distanced itself from most of its allies, including the United States, by adopting a hostile approach toward Iran. Labelling Iran as the greatest threat to international peace and security. Ottawa shut its embassy in Tehran in September, 2012, expelled Iranian diplomats from Canada and designated Iran (as well as Syria) as a sponsor of terrorism.
Some of the Conservative government’s less-visible actions will have long-term consequences. In particular, it passed the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which – alongside modifications to the State Immunity Act – empowers victims to sue perpetrators of terrorism, and countries that support them, for loss or damage that occurred as a result of a terrorist act committed anywhere in the world. This process notably allows for the seizure of property owned by Iran in Canada in connection with a judgment against it.
It is in this sense that the Conservatives booby-trapped relations with Iran, since one can only assume that the former government’s intent was to complicate any future improvement in bilateral relations.
It is not clear what procedural hurdles Iran’s listing as a state sponsor of terrorism poses for re-establishing diplomatic relations. Notably, Global Affairs Canada has said that it does not prevent contact with Iranian authorities. The designation, moreover, is the product of a decision of cabinet; Iran can therefore, in principle, be removed from the list.
This could be done either through a biennial ministerial review, or if Iran applies in writing and requests that it no longer be listed. The latter would be surprising, since a proud and nationalist regime such as the one in Tehran would be unlikely to grant any legitimacy to a process that deems it a sponsor of terrorism. Delisting Iran would raise the additional issue of what to do with ongoing cases under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act currently before the courts.
The politics of the issue are probably even more complex. One scenario could see Canada move to re-establish relations without delisting Iran. This would expose the Liberal government to criticism, from the Conservatives and from others, that it is engaging a regime that sponsors terrorism.
Ottawa could delist Iran, but this would imply that the government considers that Tehran does not, in fact, sponsor terrorism. And it, too, would expose the government to criticism that it is soft on terrorism. It would also be inaccurate, since Iran has, or had until recently, significant ties to groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which Canada considers to be terrorist groups.
The hurdles imposed by the former Conservative government are surmountable, but it will take time and impose costs. This damages our national interests, even more so since Canada already lags most of its European allies in re-engaging with Iran. Canada will thus lose ground in its efforts to gain access to the Iranian market.
This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/why-resuming-ties-with-tehran-will-be-slow-going-for-canada/article28423604/