One year ago this month, Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) reached a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement on the size, scope, nature and timetable of Iran’s nuclear program.
Just months later, when Canada’s Liberal government came to power touting its policy of engagement, Ottawa lifted many domestic sanctions against Iran and announced its willingness to consider restoring diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion recently confirmed that preliminary steps have been taken towards that end.
Leaving aside the vast flaws of the JCPOA, not to mention evidence newly revealed by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency that Iran’s “clandestine” efforts to illegally procure nuclear technology have continued “at what is, even by international standards, a quantitatively high level,” a pressing question remains: Should Canada re-open an embassy in the Islamic Republic?
When the Harper government cut off diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, there were compelling reasons for doing so, including genuine concern for the physical safety of Canadian diplomatic personnel in Tehran and of anti-regime Iranians in Canada.
Nonetheless, the current desire to resurrect direct lines of diplomatic communication is understandable enough – particularly with Canadian-Iranian citizen Homa Hoodfar locked up in an Iranian jail without access to a lawyer or essential medication. Indeed, some are convinced that Hoodfar’s imprisonment will hasten Ottawa’s efforts to restore diplomatic contacts.
But renewing diplomatic relations with Iran cannot mean going back to business as usual – with business being the operative word. A re-opened Canadian embassy should unflinchingly address Ottawa’s concerns over Tehran’s regional aggression, support for terrorism, and egregious human rights abuses. A muted mission quietly wagging a diplomatic finger on these issues while focusing on facilitating the entry of Canadian business into Iran would belie Dion’s claim that its presence in the Islamic Republic would more effectively “help this region”.
Any re-engagement with Iran should therefore be coupled with strong policies to emphasize Canada’s commitment to defending the Iranian people. For instance, sanctions could be imposed under the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) on the state organs responsible for institutionalized human rights abuses in Iran, as well as the individuals who operate them. Canada should single out the institutions at which abuses like torture and arbitrary detention occur, including Evin Prison, where Canadian Zahra Kazemi was tortured and ultimately killed and where Homa Hoodfar is now being held.
The most terrifying wards of Evin prison are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Besides being responsible for perpetrating terrorist attacks abroad and torturing Iranians at home, the IRGC controls about a third of Iran’s economy, including all the strategic sectors in which international businesses are interested.
Iran’s supreme leader himself, Ali Khamenei, owns a $95 billion holding company called the Execution of Imam Khomeini's Order (EIKO) through which he controls stakes in most of Iran's major companies, including those traded on the Tehran stock exchange.
This means that when Canadian businesses go back to Iran, they invariably will be doing business with the supreme leader and the IRGC. Not only is that bad news for the Iranian people, but it may also be in violation of U.S. sanctions relating to missile proliferation, the IRGC, terrorism, and human rights. American companies are already contending with this issue.
Earlier this month, the Financial Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on “The Implications of U.S. Aircraft Sales to Iran.” Congress is rightly concerned about an announced $25 billion deal between U.S. aerospace giant Boeing and Iran Air, a government-owned airline that has been complicit in Iran’s weapons proliferation, support for terrorism, and expanding war effort in Syria.
Victims of Iranian terrorism may also complicate matters for Western businesses looking to profit in Iran. The Israel Law Center, which represents hundreds of families of Iranian-sponsored terror victims, told Boeing that it would place liens on any airplanes slated for Iran to ensure that unsatisfied court judgments in favour of the victims are paid out.
Just as the 1975 arms control agreement negotiated by the United States with the Soviet Union addressed security, economic and human rights considerations, so too should Canada lay out its expectations for multiple dimensions of Iranian conduct as it works to reset its formal relationship with the Islamic Republic.
Ottawa can start by definitively stating that Iran will not be removed from the list of state sponsors of terror until it stops sponsoring terrorism; that further sanctions relief is contingent on the regime ceasing its human rights abuses and support of terrorism; and that Ms. Hoodfar and other imprisoned Canadians must be released immediately.
No doubt this is a tough negotiating stance. But Prime Minister Trudeau declared last April to an Islamic extremist group in the Philippines that Canada “does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists, directly or indirectly” because doing so would encourage the kidnapping of even more Canadians. He must now stand up to the belligerent regime in Tehran, which Canada has formally labeled a state sponsor of terrorism, with the same conviction and logic.
Hoodfar is less a prisoner than a hostage of Iran, being used to secure concessions from the Canadian government. It is not even clear why the 65-year-old Concordia professor, who suffers from a neurological disease, was arrested and indicted. The family thinks the secret charges somehow involve “dabbling in feminism and security matters,” even though the views expressed in her academic work about Muslim women are reportedly quite generous towards the Iranian regime. For Ottawa to cave to any demands that Iran predicates on the release of Professor Hoodfar will just reinforce Iranian malfeasance and the arrests of more innocent Canadians.
As we mark the one year anniversary of the JCPOA, Canada may indeed choose to re-establish diplomatic relations with and open its embassy in Tehran. But that embassy must be tasked with the immensely difficult job of protecting Canadian citizens and Canadian security interests in the region, not with lining the pockets of those with little regard for these imperatives. Engaging Iran to achieve anything less may be good for some Canadian businesses, but is detrimental to the business of responsible governance.
Sheryl Saperia is Director of Policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.