By Kaveh Shahrooz, July 25, 2019
The upcoming federal election promises to be a contentious one. While most voters will focus almost exclusively on domestic issues – the carbon tax, pipelines, immigration, and even, surprisingly, the Food Guide all look to be areas of disagreement among the parties – foreign policy will remain a wildcard that can sway the votes of certain constituencies.
Assessed objectively, the Trudeau government’s foreign policy record is mixed. There have been seeming successes, such as Canada’s emergence from the NAFTA re-negotiation relatively unscathed. And there are obvious failures, like the PM’s technicolour trip to India or his government’s inability to secure the release of Canadians arbitrarily detained in China.
But on Iran, a file emerging as one of the most important global issues of the day, Canada’s position can be described as neither a success nor a failure. It has simply been incoherent.
This incoherence has its genesis in the 2015 campaign – something that I witnessed, as an (unsuccessful) Liberal Party nomination candidate in the heavily Iranian-Canadian riding of Richmond Hill. Anyone scrutinizing Mr. Trudeau’s campaign statements on Iran closely would have noticed that candidate-Trudeau was attempting to straddle two irreconcilable positions.
While campaigning in front of crowds known to be antagonistic to the Iranian government, he spoke harshly of Iran’s human rights record and emphasized the importance of holding Iranian officials accountable for their crimes. With more Tehran-friendly audiences, Trudeau downplayed human rights and instead emphasized engagement and the need to reverse the Harper policy of embassy closure. Speaking to each side’s preferences may have been smart short-term politics, but it ensured that at least one side would be unhappy. In practice, after the Liberals’ first term, both sides of the Iran debate have been left deeply dissatisfied.
Once elected, re-engagement with Tehran became the official policy of the Trudeau government. Officials from Global Affairs Canada reportedly visited Tehran on at least two occasions to discuss the re-opening of embassies, and then-Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion was reported to have held a meeting with his counterpart Javad Zarif at the UN. The initiative went nowhere.
In part, the Trudeau government’s failure on this file was caused by the Iranian regime’s habitual intransigence. While negotiations with Canada were ongoing, Iran’s security forces murdered an Iranian-Canadian environmentalist in detention and barred his wife from returning to Canada. Under such circumstances, it would have been politically disastrous to normalize Canada-Iran relations. In addition, the Harper-era Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which listed Iran as a state-sponsor of terror, served as a landmine prone to explosion if tampered with. Removing Iran from the terror list before reengagement was both an Iranian demand and a domestic pre-requisite. The problem, however, was that removing Iran from such a list would be both factually inaccurate (Iran continues to finance terrorism by Hezbollah and Hamas) and politically costly for Trudeau.
The Liberals officially changed course on June 12th of last year when they voted for a Conservative motion that called for the government, among other things, to cease all negotiations for restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran, to press for the release of Canadians imprisoned or kept against their will in Iran, and to list Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.
While the policy of embassy reopening has seemingly been shelved since that vote, the Trudeau government has taken no steps on its other Iran commitments. For example, there has been near-silence from Canada on the consular cases. Individuals close to those cases have informed me that Global Affairs officials are far less engaged on those files than ever before, and a review of the Foreign Affairs Minister’s public statements reveals that she has not raised Iranian consular cases since last year. Moreover, despite the political opportunity provided by the Trump administration’s listing of the IRGC as a terrorist organization, Trudeau has taken no steps in this regard. Canada’s inaction in this regard is particularly disappointing when compared to bold actions recently taken by countries like Argentina which have also been victimized by Iranian proxies.
To recap, Canada’s government repeatedly touts the value of diplomacy in international affairs but has foreclosed the possibility of diplomatic talks with Iran. At the same time, it has committed to pressuring Iran by listing the IRGC, Iran’s most notoriously violent and corrupt institution, as a terrorist entity, all while taking no steps to deliver on such commitment. Furthermore, while Canada continues to sponsor an annual resolution at the UN General Assembly that condemns Iran for its human rights violations, it fails to champion the cases of its citizens trapped in Iran and refuses to use its Magnitsky Law to punish Iranian officials well-known for violating human rights with targeted sanctions. Alas, a “closed until further notice” sign appears to be hanging on Canada’s Iran policy.
Such incoherence in our policy could not come at a worse time. As the conflict between Iran and the United States heats up, it is increasingly essential that Canada takes a clear stand. The issue has now entangled two of our closest allies, the US and the UK, with tensions flaring last week when the US destroyed an Iranian drone and the IRGC seized the British-flagged Stena Impero oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. This evolving situation may soon draw in even larger numbers of Western states. The abandonment of our allies at this critical time will hardly go unnoticed. Canada’s position also matters because it is home to one of the largest Iranian diasporas in the world and thus its voice carries weight beyond what the geographical distance and limited economic ties between the two countries would suggest.
The Trudeau government’s indecision on the Iran file may also impose some political costs on the Liberals in the upcoming federal elections. There are at least two ridings in the GTA with significant Iranian-Canadian populations. And while members of that community vote based on a variety of issues, the Iran file is one that looms large for them. Considering Trudeau’s failure to deliver a coherent plan on Iran, the NDP may now look much more attractive to the pro-Tehran voters, whereas the Conservative Party will likely siphon off a significant portion of those staunchly opposed to the regime back home.
In an election in which each Ontario riding will be closely fought-for, Prime Minister Trudeau may yet come to regret his failure to articulate and implement a coherent Iran policy.
Kaveh Shahrooz is lawyer, a former Senior Policy Advisor to Global Affairs Canada, and a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.