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Why Canada's Approach to Iran Has Abandoned Any Sense of Realism

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Canada's hostile response to the nuclear deal struck between its closest allies and Iran has put it in an uncomfortable geopolitical position. In effect, it has turned its back on the United States, China, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany and France, while aligning itself on this issue with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and pro-Israeli congressional leaders.

The consequences will be damaging to Ottawa's interests and its standing in the international community.

On Nov. 24, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird posted on Twitter that the "People of #Iran deserve freedom & prosperity denied them by regime's nuclear ambitions," adding, "Until then, Canadian sanctions remain in full force." He later said in an interview that he was "deeply skeptical" of the Iran deal.

This is not the first time that Ottawa has been out on a limb on Iran. Following the election of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani to Iran's presidency this past June, Baird was a lone voice in the West condemning the Iranian elections, stating, "Given the regime's manipulation of the collective will and democratic process, the results of the June 14 [2013] vote are effectively meaningless." This statement, however, was not true and forced the Canadian government to issue an embarrassing retraction a few days later.

This debacle was symptomatic of an ideological shift in the nature of Canada's foreign policy toward Iran since the election of Stephen Harper in 2006.

With the Obama administration increasingly at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Harper has moved Ottawa closer to Israel in an apparent effort to fill the void. While this may play well with some segments of the Canadian Jewish community, it undermines Canada's broader national interests, particularly its longstanding, deep commitment to the United States. Moreover, this policy carries the danger of undercutting Ottawa's standing in the broader international community, while domestically playing badly among the roughly 200,000 Canadians of Iranian descent.

For generations, Canadians have been proud of their moderate, peaceful foreign policy and their reputation around the world for being a nation that supports those in need. Indeed, during the fifteen years prior to Harper's election in 2006, Ottawa participated in 23 peacekeeping missions.

Yet since then, Canada has only signed on to two missions; both related to Sudan and one a holdover from the previous Liberal government. Clearly, this is impacting Canada's reputation abroad as the conservative leadership in Ottawa undermines its fundamental values and interests.

Worse still, by disagreeing with Canada's closest allies, the Harper government is putting his country on the wrong side of history.

As John Mundy, the last Canadian ambassador to Iran has asserted, as Canada's partners move forward in implementing the interim agreement, Canadians "should begin asking our government why Canada can't re-engage with Iran ourselves." He also argued that Ottawa owes it to not just its large Iranian community but to the Canadians still imprisoned inside Iran--who were abandoned to their fate when Canada unilaterally cut relations in 2012--to re-evaluate its policy and join much of the rest of the international community in engaging the Iranian regime.

There has been tension between Canada and Iran since the Iranian revolution in 1979. Notably, Canada played a key role in exfiltrating U.S. diplomats in 1980 during the hostage crisis, which was popularized in Ben Affleck's film, Argo.

In 2003, relations became hostile following the arrest and murder of a Canadian-Iranian journalist, Zahra Kazemi, who had been taking photos outside Iran's notorious Elvin Prison. Canada eventually implicated Saeed Mortazavi, a senior regime figure and former prosecutor general of Tehran, in her death.

However, the key turning point came in 2010, when Harper secured a majority in Canada's parliament. Since then, Canada's policies toward Iran have become increasingly hostile: it has subsequently passed five rounds of unilateral sanctions and severed relations unilaterally with Tehran in September 2012.

Ottawa's unexpected breaking of relations with Tehran frustrated the Obama administration. This was because Washington had long relied upon its British and Canadian allies to gain information about internal Iranian politics and social dynamics. Canada was especially valuable to the U.S. because its 200,000-strong expatriate Iranian community have always kept in touch with their families back home and sent back remittances.

Taken overall, the Harper government's response to the Iranian deal is symptomatic of its wider foreign policy, which has abandoned any sense of realism. Instead of welcoming the accord as a major breakthrough and a potential chance to help stabilize the Middle East, Canada appears intent on mirroring Netanyahu's futile zero-sum, intensely hostile, and overtly ideological approach to Iran. In realistic terms, Canada is making a clear mistake.


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