Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion recently confirmed that preliminary official contact between Iran and Canada has begun, toward the goal of restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. The initiative reflects the Trudeau government’s policy of engagement, even with states with which it strenuously disagrees on fundamental issues.
Amid Ottawa’s recent sale of military vehicles to Saudi Arabia and its reluctance to deem Islamic State (ISIS) guilty of genocide, Canadians would be forgiven for being skeptical about their government’s assurances that human rights considerations are paramount in executive decision-making. The Iran file presents Canada with an opportunity to demonstrate exactly how human rights and engagement can coexist.
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 stated 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 Tehran 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, new sanctions should be imposed under the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) for Iran’s human rights violations. Indeed, Iran’s ballistic missile testing, sponsorship of terrorism and vast system of domestic repression all constitute a grave threat to international peace and security – the condition under which SEMA can be initiated.
SEMA could specifically be used to impose sanctions on the state organs responsible for institutionalized human rights abuses in Iran, as well as the individuals who work for these state organs. 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 Concordia professor Homa Hoodfar is now being held on unknown charges without access to legal and consular services.
The most terrifying wards of Evin Prison are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Besides 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 matters because when Canadian businesses go back to Iran, they invariably will do business with the supreme leader and the IRGC. Not only is that bad news for the Iranian people, but it will also be in violation of U.S. secondary sanctions relating to missile proliferation, the IRGC, terrorism and human rights.
Victims of Iranian terrorism may also complicate matters. The Israel Law Center, which represents hundreds of families of Iranian-sponsored terror victims, told U.S. aerospace giant Boeing that it will place liens on any airplanes slated for Iran if it goes through with an announced sale, to ensure that unsatisfied court judgments in favour of the victims are paid out.
The United States did not turn a blind eye to the U.S.S.R.’s human rights abuses when negotiating an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975. Instead, the Helsinki Final Act addressed security, economic and human rights issues, proving that the three are not mutually exclusive.
Ottawa must now pursue a similar approach with Iran. The government can start by clearly stating that Tehran’s recent demand to be removed from Canada’s list of state sponsors of terror is not negotiable, that Ms. Hoodfar must be released, and that it intends to support legislation in the Senate to enhance sanctions against the regime for its human rights abuses.
Anything less may be good for some Canadian businesses but detrimental to the business of responsible governance.
Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.