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On Iran, Canada Should Pick Up Where Obama Left Off

President Trump has shown little inclination to engage Iran and has so far begrudgingly supported the nuclear deal while his administration finalizes its Iran policy review.

07/10/2017 13:41 EDT | Updated 07/10/2017 13:41 EDT

As the second anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal approaches, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has an opportunity to put his government's new approach to foreign policy into effect by expressing support for the historic agreement reached between world powers and Iran, particularly as uncertainty increases surrounding the Trump administration's support for the deal. On Iran, Canada should pick up where the Obama administration left off and work to ensure that the deal is upheld and engage Tehran on matters of shared interest.

Last month, in a rousing speech before Canada's House of Commons in response to the Trump administration's inward-looking foreign policy, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland doubled down on the rules-based international order Canada helped shape. In doing so, she said that Canada would lead on the world stage and emphasized the importance of multilateralism in preserving the global order.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers a speech on Canada's foreign policy in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada June 6, 2017.

To be sure, the best of multilateralism was displayed when the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union successfully negotiated the nuclear accord with Iran two years ago; peacefully ending a longstanding dispute. Since then, the deal has been performing as it was designed to and has made the world safer by reversing Iran's nuclear program and verifiably preventing Iranian nuclear proliferation. More importantly, the deal prevented a catastrophic war in a region already embroiled in strife; a crisis averted thanks to the political will of both Presidents Obama and Rouhani of Iran.

The political will that previously existed is no longer balanced and the threat of conflict with Iran has needlessly re-emerged. President Trump has shown little inclination to engage Iran and has so far begrudgingly supported the nuclear deal while his administration finalizes its Iran policy review. In his remarks recently to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson endorsed regime change in Iran and indicated that he had no plans to engage Tehran.

How disengagement and hostility against Iran benefits U.S. interests remains to be seen, particularly since Tillerson's predecessor, John Kerry, worked tirelessly to establish a line of communication with Iran that helped improve relations. If Tillerson's statement is any indication, the Trump administration's Iran policy review is destined to lead Washington toward confrontation with Tehran and could be the beginning of the end of the nuclear deal. This is where Canada should step in to play a larger role.

Canada's voice on the international stage has been largely amplified thanks to the charisma and progressive politics of Prime Minister Trudeau. There is an opportunity for the star power that accompanies the prime minister to be leveraged in support of diplomacy and peace with Iran. Much like President Obama did while in office, the prime minister can be vocal before the media and in his meetings with world leaders about the benefits of the nuclear deal.

Perhaps more importantly, he can persuade President Trump of the merits of the agreement. The prime minister did say that based on his experience, the president "actually does listen." While Canada was not involved in negotiating the nuclear deal, it is bound by it through the UN Security Council resolution which formally endorsed it. To be certain, Canada would not be alone in defending the deal. The European Union has been vociferous about its support for the agreement.

POOL New / Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump (R) talks with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the beginning of the third working session of the G20 meeting in Hamburg, northern Germany, on July 8, 2017.

Not only would upholding the nuclear deal be good stewardship of the rules-based international order, it is also in Canada's national interest. Significant business opportunities for Canadian companies exist in Iran in all sectors as a result of the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

Since implementation of the deal began, Canada's allies have been pursuing their economic interests in Iran. For example, the European Union's two-way trade with Iran increased 55 percent in 2016 from the previous year. The EU foreign policy chief outright stated that the EU wanted to be Iran's largest trading partner. With France, Iran signed deals with aircraft producer Airbus in a deal worth $23 billion for over a hundred airliners. Iran also signed a deal last week with French oil company Total totaling nearly $5 billion over 20 years. Germany's Volkswagen has also announced that it will be re-entering the Iranian market after a 17 year hiatus. Even U.S.-based Boeing agreed to a $17 billion deal to sell passenger jets to Iran in a transaction that will reportedly support over 100,000 U.S. jobs.

From a geopolitical perspective, as the Trump administration re-orients U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East away from regional balance in favour of Saudi Arabia, Canada has an opportunity to continue the Obama administration's approach by defending the nuclear deal, promoting co-existence between regional players and discouraging the zero-sum game they are pursuing. Increased stability in this region would directly benefit Canadian interests since it is involved in the fight against Daesh in Iraq. Ottawa also provides humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and has welcomed over 35,000 refugees from the region in 2016.

Should Ottawa increase its advocacy of the Iran deal, particularly if the Trump administration works to undermine it, it should consider restoring ties with Tehran and pursue a policy of engagement based on Iran's continued adherence to the nuclear deal, and cooperation on issues of mutual interest including trade, the environment and the fight against Daesh. It could also engage Tehran directly on issues of great concern such as human rights, including the arbitrary detention of dual nationals, as well as Tehran's regional activities that Canada considers to be destabilizing. In this vein, reports that Canadian officials were in Tehran recently are to be welcomed.

The fate of the historic nuclear deal is at stake as the Trump administration increases its hostility toward Iran. The ongoing nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula should serve as a reminder to opponents of the deal not to take it for granted. Canada has an opportunity to pick up where the Obama administration left off by defending and upholding the nuclear agreement in support of a peaceful rules-based international order.

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