Harper’s Hollow Iran Policy: Missed Opportunities in the Islamic Republic

Having reached a historic nuclear deal this July, Iran has taken a major step towards genuine change— but don’t expect Canada to be any help along the way.

Iranians are well-educated, technologically savvy, and the most pro-American population in the Middle-East. Freed from the economic weight of an international embargo, they could push their government for meaningful change— and with his popularity soaring, moderate president Hassan Rouhani may be able to enact those reforms. Most auspiciously, Iran’s taboo against cooperating with the West has been broken, as even the country’s former president admits. Future diplomatic collaboration is now almost inevitable.

Europe seems excited. Caravans of officials, stocked with businessmen and diplomats, have flooded into Tehran— where the United Kingdom has reopened its embassy. If change is going to happen in Iran, Europe will be on the front line.

Canada, on the other hand, will be completely absent. Since cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012—citing security concerns which its own inquiry found were completely vacuous— the Harper government has shown no willingness to even consider engaging with Iran. Instead, Canada has joined Israel as one of only two countries to have publically expressed discontent with the nuclear deal, withholding sanctions relief until the Harper government has finished judging Iran "by its actions, not its words."

Make no mistake: this policy has serious implications on the ground in Iran.

"We no longer have the ability to communicate directly with Iran’s government," says Canada’s former ambassador to Iran. Nor will Canada have diplomats using their local contacts to track changes in Iranian politics as they happen, he explains. In other words, Canada won’t have the intelligence or the diplomatic foundation it would need to capitalize on an evolving Iran.

What's more, Canada has also forfeited the ability to engage in "constructive commercial diplomacy"— leveraging lucrative business opportunities to incentivize change. Canada’s exports to Iran were formerly valued at over 1.5 billion dollars; if it did enter the Iranian economy, its presence couldn’t be ignored.

So when the Harper government talks about its "principled" foreign policy towards Iran—built on human rights, democracy, and opposition to terror— that’s really all it’s doing: talking. Canada’s actions do nothing to back up these lofty ideals. It won’t be throwing its economic weight to empower the Iranian people or push for reform, nor will it be there to work with Iran when it shows a willingness to cooperate with the international community.

And that’s a shame. Because as long as Canada has been an independent international actor, it has maintained a reputation as a world-leader in diplomacy.

Just last year, US President Barack Obama thanked Canada for being "indispensable" in facilitating the thaw in US-Cuba relations, having organized secret meetings and shared intelligence.

That success came after decades of arduous diplomatic work, initiated by former Prime Minister Trudeau. Trudeau dared to expand Canada’s diplomatic relationship with Communist Cuba amidst the hysteria of the Cold War, and neither dissent at home nor pressure from abroad could deter him from doing so.

Because that’s what Canada does.

It may not be a superpower, but it can draw real influence from the diplomatic relationships it forges. Canada was not the sole cause of the US-Cuba rapprochement, but was able to facilitate an agreement because it chose to engage the Castro regime.

Mr. Harper should take a page from Canada’s diplomatic history and do the same in Iran now: re-enter the Iranian economy, re-establish diplomatic ties, and reopen the Canadian embassy in Iran. Because, as it stands, Canada is miles behind the rest of the world. We should be firmly in front of them.

Behbod Negahban

Behbod is a contributing editor at the Envoy, and studies political science at the University of British Columbia. He writes primarily on Iranian politics and the dynamics of the middle-east.

comments powered by Disqus