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Will Justin Trudeau Rebuild Canada's Relationship With Iran?

10/30/2015 11:33 EDT | Updated 10/30/2016 05:12 EDT
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man putting ballot in a box during elections in canada

The 2015 federal election in Canada marked an inspiring moment in the nation's race towards moderation, and prompted international acclamation as the "change" which the Liberal Party had pledged came to be set in motion.

Known for his bellicose foreign policy and antagonistic approach towards those world leaders with whom he couldn't come to an agreement peacefully, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, having ruled the nation since 2006, concocted new enemies for Canada and alienated those newly-found foes toughly, qualifying himself as a hawk rapidly blasted by the media and opposition figures at home and abroad.

The nine years of Conservative rule in Canada were punctuated with conflicts, entanglements and uneasy, embarrassing situations emerging as a result of Stephen Harper's debatable policies. The Canadian embassies in four countries -- Iran, Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Zambia -- were closed down; four countries that maintained normal and uncontroversial relations with Canada for so long and shouldn't have been tendered hostility. As Mark MacKinnon wrote on The Globe and Mail, foreign governments were "deliberately offended", and involvement in the U.S.-piloted military expeditions in the Middle East became the Tories' priority.

Although Stephen Harper's policies were cheered at times, he was openly called a neo-con and a warmonger by many of those who sincerely cared for the well-being of Canadian people and the public image of Canada, widely believed to be a land of peace where a war-struck refugee from Syria or Iraq could conveniently find a shelter and a placid environment to subsist.

However, as the Canadian International Council's Matthew Bondy wrote in Foreign Policy, Harper's confrontational foreign policy was mostly driven by his ideological convictions, and perhaps his adamancy on bolstering Canada's relations with Israel -- at the cost of his government's rupture with the Muslim world -- had the same underpinning.

Of the nations that suffered under Stephen Harper the most was Iran. There's a noteworthy Iranian-Canadian community scattered across Canada, which has nurtured prominent artists, scientists, scholars, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, journalists and even politicians who maintain close relations with the fellow citizens living in Iran. According to the 2011 Census of Canada, there are 163,290 residents of Canada who are recognized as Iranian by ancestry. This minority is relatively insignificant in terms of numbers when put against the total 34-million-strong population of Canada; however, many of them hold remarkable positions in academia, cultural institutions, business conglomerates and even the federal government at different levels, and this renders the Iranian-Canadian community an important part of Canadian life.

In the 2015 federal election just held on October 19, two Iranian-Canadian party-mates of Justin Trudeau were elected to the parliament: Ali Ehsassi and Majid Jowhari. On some brief chitchats with them on Twitter, I found out that reconstructing Canada's relations with Iran is one of the priorities of the new Liberal government. This is what the former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien had also advised to Justin Trudeau: to reopen the Canadian Embassy in Tehran and "talk to everybody and try to offer a solution."

These talks -- the absence of which can prolong simple diplomatic skirmishes for decades, just as was the case with Iran's nuclear program that took 12 years to be settled -- are pivotal to the resolution of problems that plague the security and beset the welfare of the humankind.

On September 7, 2012, Canada closed its embassy in Tehran and also expelled the Iranian diplomats from the Canadian soil, officially declaring the suspension of diplomatic relations with Iran. The then-Foreign Minister John Baird -- in what I see as one of his most furious remarks ever -- said Iran was the world's "most significant threat to global peace and security", adding that the Canadian government would list Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. The unexpected, bewildering decision of Ottawa was followed by the congratulatory message of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called it a "courageous act of leadership." Nonetheless, it was a move that brought about the dismay and apprehension of many Iranians in need of consular services by the Canadian mission, which lacked a full ambassador, but was offering visa services to hundreds of Iranians wishing to travel to Canada for different purposes.

In June 2009, I was selected a member of an eight-strong student assembly at the International Student Energy Summit (ISES 2009) held in Calgary. With the recommendation letters of two members of the Canadian parliament and an invitation letter which outlined that my trip was fully-funded by the organizers, it took me nearly one month to get my visa for the four-day event. At that time, the Canadian Embassy in Tehran was under fire from Iranian-Canadian associations and human rights activists for its pejorative treatment of the Iranian applicants of Canadian visas, especially the students admitted to Canadian universities, patients in urgent need of permission to be transferred to Canadian hospitals for treatment and scholars who were invited to deliver lectures and presentations at the academic events in Canada. The embassy staff mistreated the applicants, wouldn't respond to the emails and phone calls and the process of visa issuance was unnecessarily lengthy and annoying, causing many of the applicants to miss the deadlines.

Vincent Valai, the member of the Quebec Law Society and the Canadian Bar Association had revealed that "over 61 percent of Iranian applicants' visa applications had been rejected by the Canadian Embassy in 2007 and 2008."

Now, as the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is soon to be inaugurated, Iranians living in Canada and their compatriots at home are wishing for a quick and immediate normalization of the relations between Tehran and Ottawa; the relations which were pointlessly severed and caused immeasurable troubles to a people who really didn't deserve to be punished for such unsubstantiated allegations that their government sponsored terrorism. Impeding people-to-people interactions and academic exchanges, blocking educational opportunities and capping tourism through such inflammatory decisions as closing down the embassies and designating new "terrorist" entities overnight wouldn't honestly merit the accolade of a "courageous act of leadership."

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