‘Outdated’ Iran policy makes Canada a global outlier

Keeping the status quo will isolate Canada, affect its ability to communicate with Tehran, and lose potential economic opportunities

By: /
23 July, 2015
Iranians mark a new chapter for their country's foreign policy. Will Canada? (Reuters)
By: Navid Hassibi

Founding director of the Council on International Policy

As the world reached a historic nuclear accord with Iran last week, Ottawa’s reaction was predictably subdued in keeping with its tough stance against Tehran. By stating Canada’s appreciation for the agreement, Minister of Foreign Affairs Rob Nicholson calculatedly refrained from either endorsing or criticizing it, and articulated that Canada would judge Iran by its actions.

To be sure, Nicholson’s statement buys the Canadian government time to determine what its Iran policy should be now that a nuclear deal has been struck. It can either continue its marginalized approach with its existing Iran policy of disengagement or it can come out of the cold and be a player in what could very well be a new era of relations between the West and Iran.

With a federal election looming in Canada, all major political parties must begin planning for life after a nuclear deal.

As a first step, Canada is likely going to examine the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) passed unanimously earlier this week codifying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the so-called P5+1 and Iran. Among other commitments, the UNSCR creates the framework for UN-based sanctions against Iran to be removed upon verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is meeting its nuclear commitments. Beyond what was agreed to in the JCPOA, the new UNSCR does not mandate the removal of unilateral sanctions adopted by the United States, the European Union and others, such as Canada. It does keep certain sanctions in place, including an arms embargo, and establishes a panel to review the import of sensitive technology to Iran.

What this means for Canada is that contrary to statements made by its government that it will maintain sanctions against Iran, Canada will have to rescind or modify its UN-based sanctions pursuant to the new UNSCR. However, unilateral Canadian sanctions are likely to remain under the current Harper government, which now contribute to Canada’s status as global outlier on Iran, particularly as Washington and Brussels begin the trend of suspending and removing these restrictive measures in keeping with Iranian adherence to the JCPOA.

Beyond the sanctions is the broader issue of what Canadian foreign policy toward Iran will look like now that a nuclear agreement has been signed. Moving forward, Canada has several options to choose from, ranging from maintaining the status quo, pursuing a policy of controlled engagement, or seeking normalization.

Status quo

Staying the course and maintaining a status quo may have domestic political dividends in certain quarters of Canada’s body politic but risks further damaging Canada’s national interests and international reputation. Ottawa’s policy toward Tehran under its present government has largely focused on human rights conditions in Iran as well as Canada’s unquestioned support for Israel.

To be sure, pursuing the status quo would continue to isolate Canada on this particular issue. While Canada’s closest allies are interacting with Iran at the highest levels of government, Ottawa is pursuing an outdated and unproven approach to Iran by not engaging a government that it disagrees with. By disengaging Iran, Canada has relinquished the ability to directly communicate its disagreements on issues such as human rights, consequently diminishing Canada’s ability to influence any outcome as it pertains to Iran.

What is more, as Iran opens for business with the gradual lifting of sanctions, Canada could find itself deprived of potential business opportunities as a result of its policy of disengagement. Before sanctions took effect, Iran was one of Canada’s most important trading partners in the broader Middle East, with a pre-sanction and pre-recession peak of $720 million in 2008. In comparison, Canada’s bilateral trading relationship with Ukraine, with whom Ottawa recently announced a free trade agreement, totalled $244 million in 2014.

Controlled engagement

For the better part of the last two decades, Canada’s Iran policy was based on controlled engagement, that is, interaction with the Iranian government was limited to a handful of issues including human rights, Iran’s role in the region, and the case of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, who was murdered in Iranian custody in 2003. Iran was also barred from establishing consulates and cultural centres outside Ottawa.

By pursuing a renewed policy of controlled engagement, Canada would re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran, short of exchanging ambassadors, and could limit interaction to, among other things, issues such as human rights; countering violent extremism, particularly if the United States and Iran openly cooperate in their battle against ISIS; and Iran’s role in the region. Indeed, a policy of controlled engagement would be a good step forward in bringing Canada out of the fringes of global affairs with regards to Iran.


While improbable in the near term, Canada and Iran could seek to normalize their diplomatic relations in the medium to long term, particularly if Iran complies with the terms of the JCPOA and as Canada’s G7 and NATO allies continue to develop stronger ties with Tehran. This would entail re-establishing diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level, having consular services offered outside the capital cities, and interactions on various issues.

Moving forward

Now that a momentous nuclear deal has been struck, averting a potentially disastrous military conflict in a region embroiled in strife, the Canadian government must recognize the strategic importance of engaging with Iran. Like Canada, Iran is a contributor to the fight against ISIS. While there lacks direct cooperation between the United States (and Canada) and Iran in the effort to confront ISIS, parallel and complementary action is being taken. There is hope that the deal will pave the way for open cooperation between Washington and Tehran in the region. As a member of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, Canada will likely be impacted in one way or another if the United States and Iran openly collaborate against ISIS.

Ottawa’s present Iran policy which places emphasis on human rights conditions in Iran in addition to its unequivocal support for Israel does not have to be at the detriment of Canadian foreign policy towards Iran.

A functional Canadian-Iranian relationship is important for a number of reasons. Canada is home to a large Iranian expatriate community who maintain links to their homeland and who contribute to a rich and diverse multicultural Canadian society. Since the cutting of diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, the Iranian-Canadian community has been deprived access to Iranian consular services for common transactions such as passport renewals, marriage registrations, power of attorney requests and the like. Interestingly, Iranian-Canadians are travelling to Washington, DC, where Iran maintains an Interests Section, to access consular services. Additionally, even though Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, the lack of Canadian representation in Tehran leaves Iranian-Canadians there without access to Canadian assistance. The lack of Canadian presence there also deprives Ottawa and its closest ally, the United States, of a key listening outpost.

To be sure, major decisions regarding Canadian policy toward Iran will occur after the fall election. For one thing, it is anticipated that the IAEA will submit its report by the end of 2015, triggering the beginning of UN, US and EU sanctions removals. Further, the governing party after the election will be unobstructed by a looming election and will have the capacity to attentively review Canada’s Iran policy.

While the Conservative Party’s policy on Iran is well known, considering that Canada did not endorse nor criticize the nuclear deal may suggest that the Harper government is reserving the right to reverse course, particularly if its closest allies enhance ties with Iran. In this respect, Canadian policy would come into alignment with much of the international community. Indeed, the NDP, Liberals as well as the Green Party believe that Canada should stay in line with its major allies, several of whom plan to suspend or remove sanctions against Tehran as it complies with the terms of the deal.

The nuclear deal presents Canada with the opportunity to re-evaluate its policy towards Iran, particularly as an election approaches. It can progress beyond the status quo and pursue diplomacy with Tehran or continue to idle on the fringes of international politics on this issue. What is certain is that any option beyond the status quo would be a step forward for Canada.

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