January 20, 2021 | National Post

Canada has a limited window to get concessions from Iran

Ottawa cannot ignore Iran's malign activity on Canadian soil while trying to achieve justice for the victims of Flight 752
January 20, 2021 | National Post

Canada has a limited window to get concessions from Iran

Ottawa cannot ignore Iran's malign activity on Canadian soil while trying to achieve justice for the victims of Flight 752

Canada’s relations with the Islamic Republic in Iran appear to be getting more difficult by the day, after a Canadian government report on Ukraine Airline Flight 752, which was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in January 2020, criticized the Islamist regime for denying responsibility for the plane’s destruction.

The report alleges that Tehran has refused to conduct its investigation in “a truly independent, objective and transparent manner.” Canadian officials, the report further states, are particularly frustrated that the regime “is investigating itself, largely in secret. That does not inspire confidence or trust.”

Meanwhile, Ottawa has rejected Tehran’s offer to pay the families of the victims. According to Ralph Goodale, Canada’s special adviser on Flight 752, Ottawa believes the final amount should be subject to negotiations between Iran and Canada and the four other countries whose citizens died on the plane. Tehran, however, made its offer without any consultations with the relevant parties.

Ottawa is at a clear impasse with Tehran and is unlikely to get any answers unless it fundamentally changes its policy toward the country. Ottawa’s present approach should not inspire optimism, but there are indications, including the appointment of a new foreign minister, that Canada’s policy toward the regime is at a dead end — and that Canadian officials will have to reconsider their strategy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s policy toward Iran has entailed engaging the regime and even maintaining overtly cordial relations with its officials. In February 2020, just weeks after the plane’s downing, media outlets photographed Trudeau warmly shaking hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif, which angered the families of the 88 Iranian-Canadian citizens and permanent residents who died on the flight.

Canadian officials are unlikely to achieve justice for the victims of Flight 572 through friendly engagement and diplomacy alone. The Islamic Republic does respond to pressure, though. Ottawa can exact a price on Tehran by designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, as a 2018 motion passed by the House of Commons called on the government to do.

That should be followed by an extensive investigation of the regime’s assets and its network of agents in Canada. Tehran’s network is involved in illicit activities, such as money laundering and sanctions evasion. According to a recent Global News report, Iranian currency traders may be “transferring incalculable sums between Iran and Canada via Dubai, a banking zone used by the Iranian regime to evade sanctions.”

Canadian law enforcement has cracked down on some of the regime’s misconduct by investigating money laundering cases, but there is a lot more of the regime’s network to uncover. Iranian-Canadians who advocate for democracy describe living in fear of the regime’s agents, who have even intimidated the families of the victims of Flight 752. Ottawa cannot ignore the regime’s malign activity on Canadian soil while trying to achieve justice for the victims of the downed airliner.

Canadian officials are mistaken in thinking that men like Zarif are “moderates” whom Ottawa can woo with diplomatic entreaties. Zarif, in fact, is just another face of the IRGC. He has admitted to co-ordinating Iran’s foreign policies with IRGC leaders, including IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, whom the United States killed only days before Flight 572 was shot down.

To achieve progress with Zarif, the IRGC must feel greater pressure and scrutiny. Yet Ottawa has failed to act. The regime is as intransigent as ever and is likely to become even more so if the IRGC, which is fielding several presidential candidates in the upcoming election, captures the presidency in June 2021. Trudeau and his government may soon be negotiating directly with IRGC officers. Will they smile and shake hands with them?

Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Military and Political Power. Follow him on Twitter @AlirezaNader. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

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Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Human Rights Iran Sanctions Military and Political Power Sanctions and Illicit Finance