Founding director of the Council on International Policy
Canada’s role as facilitator in the restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba highlights its traditional strengths in constructive diplomacy. While Ottawa’s role in this regard must be applauded, this form of constructive diplomacy must be applied more broadly in Canadian foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Iran.
Considering outgoing Foreign Minister John Baird’s tough stance toward Iran, one of the biggest challenges for his successor, and indeed, the next government post-election, will be re-establishing diplomatic ties with Tehran. To this end, Canada must plan for the eventual normalization of relations with Iran, principally in the event that a comprehensive nuclear deal with the so-called P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) is signed, sealed and delivered by June 2015.
Over the years, Canadian foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran has diverged from that of its closest allies, including the United States and the European Union. As demonstrated through tough rhetoric and the cessation of diplomatic ties with Iran, Canada is finding itself on the margins of international politics on this issue.
Canada’s closest allies are all interacting with Iran at the highest levels of government, as most famously highlighted by the historic telephone conversation between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani last year, and more recently at last September’s UN General Assembly where UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande held bilateral meetings with the Iranian president. Indeed, Canada’s NATO allies in the so-called P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany) are negotiating with Iran in earnest and holding bilateral meetings with the Iranians on the margins in an effort to peacefully resolve a 13-year dispute.
On the other hand, Ottawa is pursuing an outdated and unproven approach to Iran by not engaging a government that it disagrees with. To be sure, the Obama administration’s recognition of this failed approach is what prompted it to change its strategy vis-à-vis Tehran, and more recently Havana. On a broader and global scale, Canadian policy towards Iran has been part of a shift in Canada’s foreign policy which has changed its image abroad and at home.
Under its current leadership — and arguably in large part due to Baird’s approach — Ottawa’s Iran policy has largely focused on Tehran’s less than stellar respect for human rights, and rightfully so, as well as the government’s unequivocal support for Israel.
While it is the government’s prerogative to pursue the policies it deems necessary, Canada’s emphasis on human rights in addition to its unequivocal support for Israel does not have to be at the detriment of Canada’s broader foreign policy towards Iran. Canada’s government must recognize the strategic importance of engaging with Iran. Like Canada, Iran is a contributor to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh. While there lacks direct cooperation between the United States and its allies, including Canada, and Iran in the effort to confront ISIS, parallel and complementary action is being taken. Certainly, a de-conflicting of interests and activities is occurring via the Iraqis.
What is more, a functional Canadian-Iranian relationship is important for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, Canada is home to a large Iranian expatriate community who maintain links to their homeland and who contribute to a rich and diverse multicultural Canadian society. Since the cutting of diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, the Iranian-Canadian community has not had access to Iranian consular services for common transactions such as passport renewals, marriage registrations, power of attorney requests and the like. Interestingly, Iranian-Canadians are travelling to Washington, DC, where Iran maintains an Interests Section, to access consular services. Additionally, even though Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, the lack of Canadian representation in Tehran leaves Iranian-Canadians there without access to Canadian assistance. The lack of Canadian presence there also deprives Ottawa and its allies of a key listening outpost.
Further, in the event sanctions on Iran are permanently lifted, Canada may find itself at a disadvantage economically once Iran’s mostly untapped commercial and consumer market opens, potentially depriving Canadian businesses of lucrative trade opportunities, which are feverishly pursued by the current Canadian government.
In the event a nuclear agreement is reached with Iran, first through a political framework in March and later through a comprehensive agreement in June, Canada will need to act accordingly and pursue constructive diplomacy with Tehran or continue being the outlier in global politics.
By no means will this equate to Canada and Iran being the best of friends, but rather, there is no better time than the present to re-evaluate Canadian foreign policy toward Iran, particularly with the welcoming of a new minister of foreign affairs, a federal election year and potentially a pivotal year in Iran’s broader relations with the West, including Canada.