January 29, 2016 | National Post

What to do about Iran?

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has confirmed his government’s intent to lift Canada’s sanctions against Iran, as the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 world powers begins to be implemented. Yet the Canadian government has not released the details of this pending change of policy and the public remains largely uninformed about what is implied by the removal of sanctions.

There are, in fact, three distinct measures that Canada has utilized to demonstrate its disapproval of the Iranian government’s actions: listing Iran as a state sponsor of terror, imposing economic sanctions and suspending diplomatic ties. These have been mistakenly conflated in much of the discourse and require clarification.

Iran as a state sponsor of terror

The Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act (JVTA) enables victims of terrorism to file civil lawsuits against local and state supporters of terror. Under the JVTA, only foreign states that Ottawa has explicitly listed as state sponsors of terror can be sued. Currently, Iran and Syria are the only two countries with that designation.

The passage of the JVTA and the listing of two egregious state sponsors of terror were hardly Conservative “booby traps,” as one commentator recently claimed. A booby trap implies something concealed, covert and harmful. The 2012 passage of the JVTA represented the culmination of a well-publicized, multi-partisan, victims-led campaign to find alternate avenues to deter terrorism and hold wrongdoers accountable.

Iran’s status as a state sponsor of terror has been widely acknowledged. Indeed, the regime has used terrorism as an essential component of its foreign policy, military strategy and the fuel of religious revolution that lies at the heart of its constitution. The IRGC-Quds Force, Hamas and Hezbollah, all listed terrorist entities in Canada, have received critical support from Iran.

Even U.S. President Barak Obama, who appears to have been more eager than any other world leader to reach a nuclear agreement with Tehran, has stated unequivocally that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. Thus, in the United States, while some sanctions are being lifted, Iran’s status as a terror sponsor remains intact. Similarly, a terror listing under the JVTA does not impede Ottawa from adding, amending or repealing sanctions currently imposed against Iran for its nuclear violations. The Canadian government could theoretically re-establish diplomatic and business ties without giving Tehran a pass on terrorist activities that have killed and maimed Canadian citizens.

Iran under Canadian sanctions

Canadian sanctions related to Iran were enacted under the United Nations Act and the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA), in response to Iran’s nuclear program. Now that the nuclear agreement has been reached, the sanctions that Canada adopted upon the request of the United Nations will likely be removed. But Canada has several options when it comes to its own regulations regarding Iran under SEMA.

The first, albeit unlikely, choice is for Ottawa to maintain existing sanctions, because it recognizes the extensive flaws of the nuclear deal. For instance, Iran need only conform to the terms of the agreement to become a nuclear threshold state in 15 years. At that point, the regime would be able to produce nuclear weapons faster and more efficiently, while pursuing its open and unchanged agenda of achieving regional dominance, supporting terrorism, weakening the West, and developing a sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missile program.

A second option is for Canada to tie the elimination of nuclear sanctions to demands that the regime cease its terrorist activities, end its calls for the destruction of Israel, and put a halt to its ballistic missile program and vast system of domestic repression. This would be similar to the approach taken by the United States in reaching an arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975, which linked security, economic and human rights issues.

A third option is to lift the sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program, while imposing equally tough sanctions for the aforementioned non-nuclear misbehaviour.

Given Dion’s statement that sanctions against Iran will be lifted, it appears that the only decision remaining is whether Canada will do so in a manner that turns a blind eye to a regime that crushes pro-democracy uprisings; tortures new inmates as a rite of passage into its prison system; enjoys the world’s highest per capita rate of executions; persecutes LGBT people and religious and ethnic minorities; and locks up journalists and human rights defenders. Iran’s human rights violations, which have worsened under the highly touted “moderation” of President Hassan Rouhani, are at odds with the most fundamental of Canadian values.

Canada-Iran diplomatic relations

Canada and Iran have only had full diplomatic relations for six of the last 36 years. After Canada orchestrated the rescue of American embassy personnel during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, an enraged Iran slammed the door on Canada-Iran relations for a decade. The Canadian government later restricted the terms of its relationship with Tehran following the torture, rape and murder of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi by Iranian officials in 2003. In 2012, Canada suspended all diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic.

This suspension of diplomatic ties appeared to be for two reasons. First, there was increasing evidence of the Iranian regime exerting inappropriate influence in Canada. Iranian-Canadians also became more vocal about Iranian diplomatic personnel spying on them in Canada and reporting anti-regime sentiment back to Tehran.

Second, the Conservative government, in planning to list Iran as a state sponsor of terror, was concerned about the safety of its embassy officials in Tehran. This was not a trivial concern given Iran’s history of directing, or permitting, attacks on foreign embassies, including the November 2011 attack on the British embassy in Tehran and the attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy earlier this month.

If the Canadian government now believes Iran to be a safe place for its diplomatic staff, it can re-open its embassy. Neither SEMA sanctions nor a terror listing prevent the government from doing so.

Canadian interests

In May 2015, former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler led Iran Accountability Week, in which parliamentarians from across the political spectrum gathered “to sound the alarm on the toxic convergence of threats posed by the Iranian regime.” Less than a year later, the new Liberal government is planning to lift sanctions, so that Canadian companies are not left behind as Iran’s market starts opening up to the world.

Canadian business interests undeniably matter, but they cannot be summarily divorced from our national security interests and our commitment to human rights. And make no mistake: doing business with Iran means doing business with a regime bent on slaughtering civilians in Syria and crushing dissent at home.

As the nuclear sanctions architecture against Iran begins to crumble, an emboldened Tehran is emerging in its wake. The regime’s recent detainment of American sailors and testing of ballistic missiles in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions at such a sensitive juncture are further evidence of Iranian recalcitrance.

Canada should play a role in containing the regime’s appetite for aggression and supporting the liberal democratic forces within that country. The Trudeau government would be well advised to maintain Canada’s designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terror and develop a human rights-centered approach to its sanctions regime against Tehran. Neither precludes greater diplomatic and economic engagement with Iran.

Sheryl Saperia is the director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @sherylsap