Small Steps Towards Re-Engagement With Iran

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While Canada is still out of sync with its international partners on Iran, the Liberal government has committed to reversing its inherited Iran policy as it brings Canadian foreign policy out from the cold. Indeed, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has recognized that Canada risks being isolated from its allies if it maintains sanctions against Iran. To this end, he has promised to lift United Nations-mandated Canadian sanctions against Iran now that implementation of the nuclear deal is in effect. To be sure, as much of the world re-engages Tehran, Ottawa still has time to play catch up.

Indeed, Canada’s G7 and NATO allies are in advanced stages of their re-engagement strategy with Iran. Case in point: the British have restored full diplomatic relations; Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President François Hollande both recently hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in their capitals; and US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have developed a strong rapport culminating in a week full of diplomatic victories for US-Iranian relations as evidenced by the return of American sailors within 14 hours, the official implementation of the nuclear deal, a prisoner exchange and the settlement of a 36 year financial dispute.

What is becoming clear is that the world is re-engaging Iran on security and economic issues. For instance, Iran was invited to partake in the Vienna Process on the Syrian civil war; a forum that Canada should have been involved in due to its role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Economically, China and Iran recently announced a ten year $600-billion partnership. On his trip to Italy, Iranian President Rouhani and Italian Prime Minister Renzi ushered in deals amounting to $16 billion. In France, Iran signed deals with oil company Total, car manufacturer Peugeot and aircraft producer Airbus. This latter deal is reportedly worth $23 billion for over a hundred airliners to replace Iran’s aging and dilapidated fleet. To be certain, significant business opportunities exist in Iran in all sectors now that sanctions have been lifted. Due to Canada’s unilateral sanctions, however, Canadian businesses are prevented from exploring these opportunities. For instance, Canadian company Bombardier, which has been struggling as of late, is unable to place bids for contracts in Iran’s aviation sector.

Economics aside, Canada’s national interests can be served if it engaged Iran on cultural, social and political matters. Culturally and socially, Canada is home to a large number of Iranian Canadians who maintain links to their homeland. These individuals are unable to access consular services for common transactions such as passport renewals. There are also mutually beneficial opportunities for academic exchanges to foster cultural links and exchange knowledge between Canadian and Iranian institutions. Politically, when the previous Canadian government closed its embassy in Tehran, it deprived itself and the United States of a key listening outpost in the capital of an important regional player. It also deprived itself the ability of communicating its disagreements, say over human rights, with Iran directly. After all, diplomacy is most useful when used to talk to those you disagree with than with your friends.

Re-engaging Tehran does not mean that Canada and Iran will become strategic partners, however, if Canada can engage with Saudi Arabia, a country with which little is shared in terms of values, then surely it can engage with Iran whose population is highly secular and Western-leaning.

Iran observers have highlighted potential obstacles in Ottawa’s pursuit of re-engagement with Iran. Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa has noted that two main obstacles exist: Iran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism pursuant to the 2012 Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which enables victims of terrorism to sue countries that are listed as supporters; and, political backlash due to Iran’s ties with organizations such as Hezbollah. Importantly, these obstacles do not prevent Canada from talking to Iran, but may add complications in restoring formal ties.

Clearly, moving forward, the Liberal government must determine the legal path to re-establishing ties with Iran, which at some point will require unilateral sanctions relief. Given that Iran was added to the state sponsor of terror list with an Order-in-Council decision, theoretically, the same can be done to remove it from that list. If legislative action is required, the Liberal government can take advantage of its majority status accordingly. Politically, the Liberal government may have to engage a public which includes pockets of Iran skeptics. The same was done in the United States when President Obama expended significant political capital to inform the American body politic of the merits of the Iran nuclear deal.

In facilitating re-engagement with Iran, Canada can use its Mission at the United Nations to reach out to Iran’s Mission. Another option is to take advantage of global fora such as the World Economic Forum, which just passed, to have delegations interact. Indeed, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reportedly met privately with a leading Canadian banker with close ties to the Liberal government. The next major forum is the Munich Security Conference which could present engagement opportunities if both countries attend. Moving forward, Canada can adopt a similar approach to that of the United Kingdom in re-establishing formal ties with Iran, by exchanging non-resident chargé d’affaires as an interim measure to reopening embassies and exchanging ambassadors.

To be prudent and effective, re-engagement should be step-by-step, perhaps limited to a handful of issues including the resumption of trade and business transactions and restoring consular services. What is more, in pursuing its objective of being an honest broker on the global stage, Canada can use the global attention it has garnered as of late to help bridge divides that exist between regional foes, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Canada’s friends around the world are demonstrating that diplomacy works with Iran; in this respect, there is literally no better time than the present to sync Canada’s Iran policy with that of its closest partners.

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