By Alireza Nader and Benjamin Weinthal, October 25, 2021
Canada has caved to the Chinese Communist Party’s policy of hostage-taking. Last month, Beijing released two innocent Canadians in exchange for the US release of telecom giant Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, who lived under house arrest in Vancouver. The US Justice Department had indicted Meng and Huawei in 2019 for their business with a company conducting trade in Iran in violation of American sanctions.
The exchange is a prime example of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s conciliatory approach toward authoritarian regimes. Trudeau appears to believe that diplomacy alone can reform malign governments. But this view is naïve, threatening not only Canada’s national security, but also US and global security by empowering and emboldening countries like China and Iran.
Trudeau’s foreign policy has faced strong domestic criticism in recent years. Many analysts and pundits see Trudeau as soft on the threat of global authoritarianism and even accuse him of openly admiring authoritarian regimes such as Communist China. “There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China,” Trudeau said in 2013. “Their basic dictatorship is actually allowing them to turn their economy around on a dime.” Critics also note that Canada has become a top destination for money-launderers and other criminals, especially those with links to China and Iran.
As early as 2012, Trudeau advocated trade with China to the detriment of Canadian national security. In an op-ed, he praised the Beijing-based China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s purchase of Calgary-based company Nexen in a US$15 billion deal. “Just a decade ago,” Trudeau wrote, “China’s outward foreign direct investment was negligible; today it approaches $100-billion. Canada has more potential to capitalize on this context than any other country. From minerals to energy, from education expertise to construction, we have a lot of what China needs.”
According to a May 2021 report published by the Alliance Canada Hong Kong, China’s political “influence is observed across every region and level of governance in Canada.”
The Trudeau government has also been reluctant to pressure the regime in Iran. Tehran’s intentional shootdown of Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 in January 2020, killing 55 Canadian citizens and 30 Canadian permanent residents, has led to outrage among Canadians, especially in the Iranian-Canadian community. Trudeau at times has appeared to channel that outrage by strongly condemning Iran for the shootdown. But his government has done little to achieve justice for the PS752 families. He refuses to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Tehran’s praetorians, as a terrorist organization. He also has failed to investigate the regime’s money laundering and political influence network in Canada.
Trudeau often views the United States as a cause of instability, describing the shootdown of flight PS752 not as a deliberate Iranian act, but as the result of “regional tensions.” According to Trudeau, “if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families. … This is something that happens when you have conflict and war. Innocents bear the brunt of it and it is a reminder why all of us need to work so hard on de-escalation, moving forward to reduce tensions and find a pathway that doesn’t involve further conflict and killing.”
Trudeau’s policy toward Iran is framed by the Biden administration’s currently dormant efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and Washington’s concurrent failure to counter Iran’s regional aggression, support for terrorism, and domestic repression. Trudeau is unlikely to change his policy toward Tehran if Washington prioritizes the accord over Iran’s other malign conduct. After all, US and Iranian re-entry into the JCPOA could mean renewed business opportunities for Canadian companies and the restoration of diplomatic ties.
Yet the increasing likelihood that Washington and Tehran will prove unable to revive the JCPOA also means that the Biden administration may consider other approaches toward Iran, including Israel’s Plan B of more pressure, including sanctions and possibly sabotage. Nevertheless, the resuscitation of the JCPOA should not lead to impunity for Iran’s aggression. Regardless of the outcome of nuclear talks, the Trudeau government should apply more pressure on the regime in Iran, especially by designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization.
Trudeau needs to draw a line in the sand against the serial one-two punches that Beijing and Tehran are delivering. The Canadian leader should make clear to all that Ottawa stands on the side of the world’s democratic nations.
Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow at FDD. Follow them on Twitter @AlirezaNader and @BenWeinthal. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.