Canadians have reason to be wary of Iran. Its nuclear ambitions are notorious. Its human rights record is appalling. Its hostility toward Israel is worrisome. And its rivalry with Saudi Arabia for influence across the Middle East has destabilized an already volatile region.
Yet for all that, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is right to want to cautiously re-engage with the Islamic Republic and its 80 million people, as the United States and other allies are doing, after a season of diplomatic frost. Diplomacy is not about talking only with one’s friends.
As Trudeau has noted, Iran has made “significant movement” toward meeting the United Nations demand that it dismantle the most dangerous aspects of its nuclear program, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on its economy. That’s to be encouraged.
By giving up its stockpile of enriched uranium, disabling centrifuges and cementing over a plutonium-capable reactor — while agreeing to intrusive monitoring — Iran will find it harder to “break out” and build a nuclear weapon quickly.
The world can now test the extent to which Tehran is disposed to further shed its pariah status, clean up its act on the other fronts, and rejoin the councils of civilized nations.
Despite progress on the nuclear file there’s reason to be skeptical.
This is the regime, after all, that murdered Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in 2003. It still backs Bashar Assad’s criminal regime in Syria. And it is testing long-range missiles. But problematic though Tehran remains, the nuclear breakthrough confirms that change for the better is possible. Certainly, it’s worth encouraging. That can’t happen by cold-shouldering Iran.
As U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has shown, engaging with President Hassan Rouhani and Iran’s theocratic leadership is more productive. Especially at a time when Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and Syria threaten mutual interests.
The hope is that the Iranian public will see the benefit of co-operating with the rest of the world, and will pressure their leaders to continue down that path. Iran will now have access to as much as $100 billion in overseas assets that were frozen under sanctions. It will be able to sell its oil. And it will be able to attract investment, and cut trade deals. All that will boost living standards.
These positive developments have implications for the shaky arc of Canada-Iran relations.
Canada had an embassy in Tehran for decades before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but it was shuttered in 1980. The embassy reopened in 1990 and Iran became our most important Mideast trading partner. Then it was closed again in 2012 when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government abruptly and unwisely broke off relations.
As the Toronto Star argued at the time, Harper should have kept the diplomatic channels open. For better or worse, Tehran is a major Mideast actor. Like it or not, we have to deal with that reality. We can’t wish it away.
Today, thanks to American-led diplomacy, the nuclear threat has been sharply reduced and Iran has been drawn into talks to end Syria’s ghastly civil war. Both Washington and Tehran talk hopefully of a healthy “new direction” and a “new chapter” in relations after decades of enmity, including the prospect of wider trade. That détente is the real prize.
Canada stands to benefit directly, to the extent that this offers the prospect of rebuilding our once-strong trading relationship. That presupposes gradually lifting Canadian sanctions that range from restrictions on trade in nuclear materiel to conventional weapons, oil and gas, transportation and communications.
Working closely with our allies, the Trudeau government should cautiously resume high-level contacts with Iran, gradually roll back comprehensive sanctions on oil, banking and trade linked to its nuclear activities, and reopen the embassy.
Given Iran’s politics, self-interest and history of fractious relations with its neighbours, there will still be plenty of head-butting ahead. But Washington has shown the value of keeping the channels of communication open. Canada should act on that.