Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government has officially re-opened the sticky question of what to do about Iran.
The theocratic regime in Tehran had been one of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s favourite bêtes noires. In 2012, his Conservative government broke off virtually all diplomatic relations with the Persian state.
Now the Liberals, in line with Trudeau’s campaign promises, are planning to restore them.
More important, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has confirmed that Canada will follow the lead of the U.S. and Europe by removing most of the economic sanctions this country has levelled against Iran.
He said Tuesday that this was necessary to give Canadian business a chance to bid for lucrative contracts there.
For firms like the troubled aircraft manufacturer Bombardier, Ottawa’s new approach could represent a bonanza.
Alberta-based firms could also benefit as Iran ramps up its petroleum production.
Iran has been subject to United Nations sanctions since 2006. It wasn’t able to legally sell its oil. Nor was it able to buy most foreign goods.
Now, because it has promised to give up any ambition to build a nuclear weapon, the UN sanctions have been lifted. European firms are already flocking to Iran looking for deals. Canadian business wants a cut of the action.
Still, the restoration of normal relations with Iran represents a two-edged sword for the Liberals.
On the one hand, it fulfils Trudeau’s pledge to conduct foreign affairs on a practical rather than an ideological basis.
Under regulations issued by the Harper Conservatives, almost all trade between Canada and Iran was banned.
As well, the Conservative government officially declared Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. This allowed those harmed by groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah, which are designated as terrorist and supported by Tehran, to sue the Iranian government in Canadian courts.
If the new government wishes to reverse either or both of these policies it can easily do so at the stroke of a pen, by means of a simple cabinet order-in-council. There is no need to even bring the matter to the Commons.
But normalizing relations with Iran also carries a political cost. Many supporters of Israel in Canada view Iran as a malevolent threat to the Jewish state. They are not likely to applaud a resumption of normal relations.
There is also the question of human rights. Two Iranians with permanent resident status in Canada are currently jailed in Iran.
Saeed Malekpour, an engineer, is serving a life sentence for allegedly trying to corrupt the regime through pornography. Filmmaker Mostafa Azizi is serving an eight-year sentence, apparently for writing things the regime didn’t like.
Normalizing relations between the two countries might encourage Iran to release both of these men. That is the hope.
Then again, it might not. Iran did release four Iranian-American prisoners this month to mark its rapprochement with the U.S. But in return, Washington released four Iranian-Americans from jail who had either been accused or convicted of sanctions-busting.
To the best of my knowledge, Canada has no jailed Iranians that it can offer up as bargaining chips.
Certainly, normal diplomatic ties do not always guarantee human rights. Canada’s business-friendly attitude toward China’s Communist dictatorship has not led Beijing to release Canadian Huseyin Celil from prison. He has been held for 10 years.
Nor have Canada’s positively warm relations with Saudi Arabia convinced that country’s royal dictatorship to rescind the 1,000-lash penalty meted out to blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife lives in Quebec.
Canada’s best diplomatic friend is the United States. But that friendship didn’t deter Washington from apprehending Canadian citizen Maher Arar in 2002 and sending him off to Syria to be tortured.
In short, Canada’s decision to normalize its approach to Iran is better than the alternative. It will certainly be better for business.
But will it solve all the problems that bedevil the relationship between the two countries? Probably not.