When the plane carrying Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and two other freed American prisoners touched down in Germany on Saturday, a new page was turned in U.S.-Iran relations.
Rezaian, locked up for 18 months in Evin Prison, was one of five Americans released by Iran in a prisoner swap that followed a landmark nuclear agreement. That deal eased painful sanctions and unfroze $50 billion in Iranian assets.
Now, the prisoners’ release — helped by the diplomatic bond between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — is giving new hope to two Canadian permanent residents behind bars in Iran.
Saeed Malekpour, serving a life sentence and Mostafa Azizi, an eight-year term, are also political prisoners in Iran. Relatives are awaiting word from the Trudeau government that the chilly relationship between Canada and Iran — one that grew colder with the severing of diplomatic relations in 2012 — will thaw enough to allow negotiations on their release to begin.
At a cabinet retreat Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the “quiet diplomacy” that led to the Iran nuclear deal.
In his election campaign, Trudeau pledged to reopen the Tehran embassy that was shuttered under the Harper government. Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion said that this “cannot be done overnight,” but will be done “properly in a timely manner.”
A more rapid move could see the lifting of Canadian sanctions against Iran. A briefing note written for Trudeau and obtained by The Canadian Press says that Ottawa could lift them “as early as winter 2016 and as late as summer 2016.”
Dion suggested the cabinet will decide quickly — a move that could give Canadian companies the chance to bid for Iranian contracts that might be snapped up by the U.S.
Whether warming relations will lead to the release of the two prisoners is still in question.
Rezaian’s departure from Iran highlighted the difficulty of dealing with a country divided by a power struggle between hard-line conservatives and the more liberal factions allied with President Hassan Rouhani.
The lengthy bargaining process to release the Americans was almost broken when Rezaian’s wife and mother, who were supposed to accompany him, were unexpectedly detained at the airport.
In spite of an 11th-hour intervention by Zarif, and an exit order from Iran’s prosecutor general, officials told the lead American negotiator the two women were not part of the deal. It was hours before they were all allowed to leave the country together, according to the New York Times.
In Canada, where negotiations for prisoner releases have been grounded, the time may now be ripe for a new start, propelled by lifting of sanctions and reopening of the embassy.
For now, says Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi, himself the son of a former Iranian diplomat, “I can assure you that as a country we intend to speak out on human rights, and the minister is very much concerned with both cases. The department is doing what it can on those cases.”
Bryon Wilfert, a former MP and foreign affairs critic when Dion was opposition leader, said he is optimistic about thawing relations with Iran.
“Canadian foreign policy will be less worried about diasporas and more concerned with meaningful engagement which will improve the lives of people in Iran and shape a more positive Iran policy,” he said.
“In my experience, the only way to influence any policy is by direct engagement,” Wilfert said. “There are different groups in Iran that have their own networks — the Revolutionary Guard, the president and (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei. But Kerry and Zarif managed to develop a rapport that included the prisoner exchange.”
Paul Heinbecker, a former UN ambassador under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, said that Iran “knows there is a different government, which is on record saying it will engage. But diplomatic relations are something you negotiate. It’s not a light-switch decision.”
Iran’s human rights record has been a stumbling block to engagement with the West. As a parliamentary election looms next month, human rights questions are likely to highlight the divide between the factions. But the systemic reforms Western countries have called for are unlikely to happen soon.
“Iran’s release of the (American) prisoners was a result of government discretion, not the rule of law correcting a grotesque miscarriage of justice in Iran,” says Hadi Ghaemi, who heads the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Iranian-born engineer Saeed Malekpour immigrated to Canada in 2004 and was awaiting Canadian citizenship as a permanent resident. He was working as a freelance web developer in Victoria, B.C., but returned to Tehran to visit his fatally ill father. In October 2008 he was arrested in Iran on charges of working with a foreign government to subvert the clerical regime with Internet pornography, and sentenced to death at an unfair trial. After months of interrogation and torture he is now serving a life sentence in Evin Prison.
A writer and filmmaker who produced popular TV shows in Iran, Mostafa Azizi immigrated to Toronto and became a permanent resident in 2010. In North York, he founded and managed the cultural hub Farhang Khane. After returning to Iran to be with his ailing father, he was arrested in early 2015 and sentenced to eight years in prison for “collusion against Iran” — apparently for his writings and nonviolent social media activities. He has been subjected to month-long interrogation and solitary confinement.