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It's Time To Bring Canada's Iran Policy Out From The Cold

12/10/2015 11:22 EST | Updated 12/10/2016 05:12 EST

As "Implementation Day" of the historic nuclear deal between world powers and Iran approaches, during which Iran will begin fulfilling the bulk of its end of the agreement while sanctions by the United Nations, United States and the European Union are removed, Canada must begin planning for the eventual restoration of ties with Iran in keeping with the new Trudeau government's affirmation to re-engage Tehran. In doing so, Ottawa must determine the breadth and depth of the relationship it desires with Tehran, pursue initial contact, if it has not done so already, and come to agreement with the Iranians as to how best to logistically re-establish diplomatic presence in each other's capitals.

As Canada's G7 and NATO partners spare little time in engaging Tehran, the dawn of a new year, and indeed, the official implementation start date of the nuclear deal presents the Trudeau government with a timely opportunity to reverse the policies of the previous government and bring Canada's Iran policy in from the cold.

While the Trudeau government has pledged to re-engage Iran, pursuing engagement is not an end in itself and must advance Canadian national interests. Defining these interests will guide the extent to which Canada wants to re-engage Iran.

Politically, it is indisputable that by disengaging Iran, the previous Canadian government relinquished Ottawa's ability to directly communicate its disagreements with Tehran on issues such as human rights, consequently diminishing Canada's ability to influence any outcome as it pertains to Iran. The lack of Canadian presence there has also deprived Ottawa and its allies of a key listening outpost. A re-engagement policy could facilitate political interaction on, among other things, issues such as human rights; Iran's role in the region; counter-narcotics and countering violent extremism.

Like Canada, Iran is a contributor to the fight against ISIS. While there lacks direct cooperation between the U.S.-led coalition (which includes Canada) and Iran in the effort to confront ISIS, parallel action is being taken. Now that a nuclear deal has been reached, Iran's strategic importance is being openly recognized by world powers, including the United States. Indeed, both the U.S. and Iran participate in the Vienna talks on Syria. Against this backdrop, Canada cannot ignore a pivotal player in the broader Middle East if it intends to be back on the world stage.

Further, once sanctions on Iran are lifted sometime early in the new year, Canada may find itself at a disadvantage economically once Iran's mostly untapped commercial and consumer market opens, potentially depriving Canadian businesses of lucrative trade opportunities. Indeed, analysts opine that Iran has less interest in re-engaging Canada as it focuses on establishing economic ties with the European Union and even the United States. Before sanctions took effect, Iran was one of Canada's most important trading partners in the broader Middle East, with a pre-sanction and pre-recession peak of $680 million in 2008. In comparison, Canada's bilateral trading relationship with Israel was just under $900 million that same year. There are reportedly opportunities abound for Canadian companies looking to do business with Iran, particularly in the agricultural, energy, infrastructure, medical and technological sectors.

What is more, a functional Canadian-Iranian relationship is important from a consular management perspective. Canada is home to a large Iranian expatriate community who maintain links to their homeland and who contribute to a rich and diverse multicultural Canadian society. Since the cutting of diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, the Iranian-Canadian community has not had access to Iranian consular services for common transactions such as passport renewals, marriage registrations, power of attorney requests and the like. Ironically, Iranian-Canadians can access consular services in Washington, DC, where Iran maintains an Interests Section.

Additionally, even though Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, the lack of Canadian representation in Tehran leaves Iranian-Canadians there without access to Canadian assistance. This may be needed now more than ever. Considering the political infighting in Iran between the moderates and hardliners prior to the nuclear deal and ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, dual citizens are facing an increasing risk of being detained and arrested on dubious charges. Fearing their political and economic grip slipping, hardliners are working to sabotage the goodwill that the Rouhani administration has been building globally. Canadian re-engagement would emblematically contribute, even if slightly, to the moderate camps' political battle against hardliners.

So how would Canada and Iran go about in re-establishing ties? One avenue could be for the Canadian and Iranian Missions to the United Nations to facilitate re-engagement. To be sure, they enabled a protecting power arrangement between Canada and Iran in 2013 when Oman was designated the protector of Iran's interests in Canada while Italy was named Canada's in Tehran. This occurred after political correspondence and notes between the representatives of Iran and Canada were exchanged at the United Nations. Using a step-by-step approach, ties can be elevated by appointing non-resident chargé d'affaires to guide the process of restoring ties.

During this process, Iran will certainly demand that Canada rescind its unilateral sanctions. Canada could do so in keeping with its international partners or do so in a quid pro quo. Assuming re-engagement is followed using these steps, senior level interaction at the ministerial-level could then be appropriate at the next UN General Assembly in September 2016, during which the restoration of full diplomatic relations could be agreed to and announced. This would lead to an exchange of ambassadors and the re-opening embassies.

Now that there is a new sheriff in town, Canada will certainly look to re-engage Iran as part of its "we're back" policy. What is certain, the nuclear deal of the summer symbolized victory for diplomacy, so to would restoring ties with Iran.

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